Spending Funds: U.S. Politics and the Seminole Tribe

By Jarrid L. Smith

The 2020 Presidential and Congressional election season is nearing its end point, there are three weeks until the November 3rd election day.  During the current election cycle, which is from 2019-2020, the Center for Responsive Politics is projecting the total money spent to be just under $11 billion.  This record number is stunning, and it reflects the perception that those who have the most money also wield the most power.  With this in mind, to what extent has the Seminole Tribe of Florida gotten involved in the campaigns?  Read on to follow the money and see where it goes.

Campaign Finance in Context

In politics the best position to be in is that of an incumbent.  Being an incumbent comes with advantages, including name recognition, voting record, visibility, and campaign support, among other things.  But how does someone become an incumbent?  With lots of money, and the person who spends the most usually wins.  The money spent on winning House campaigns range from $200,000 to $2 million, but there are some outliers.  When it comes to the Senate, the cost of winning a seat jumps to an average of $19.4 million.  

The source of the money comes from different places, but they include small donations of $200 or less, large donations, self-funded campaigns, Political Action Committees (PACs), and Super PACs.  

Seminole Contributions

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, and other indigenous tribes within the United States, maintain a sovereign relationship with the federal government.  This means that the tribes and the U.S. federal government function as equals, similar to the U.S. and other countries from around the world.  The nature of this relationship, however, is different than those the U.S. has with other countries.  Whereas the U.S. entered into various one-sided treaties with tribes, their goal was to exert influence over the indigenous people.  In the present day, tribes have attempted to reverse this influence in various ways, one of which is through elections.  

When the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 became law, tribes across the country entered into a new era of economic growth.  The newfound leverage gained from economic success would soon be put to use to grow new opportunities.  Soon thereafter tribes began their financial contributions to political candidates and parties.  Unless otherwise noted, all data presented in this article is via the Center for Responsive Politics, information accurate as of October 8, 2020. The data in the following chart shows the contributions of nine tribes in the current election cycle.

Tribe2019-2020 Contributions 
Seminole Tribe of Florida$225,992
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation (CT)$150,867
Chickasaw Nation (OK)$860,486
Pechanga Band of Lusieno Mission Indians (CA)$680,538
San Manuel Band of Mission Indians (CA)$218,385
Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut$57,684
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma$206,411
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (NC)$312,408
Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (MN)$648,003
Total / Average$3,360,774 / $373,419.34

Further analysis of the financial contributions of the Seminole Tribe of Florida showed the following:

PartyTotal ContributionPercent of Total Contributions
Democrat$165,27375.00%
Republican$55,08525.00%
Total$225,992100%
Incumbents vs. Non-IncumbentsPercent of Total Contributions Received
Incumbents89.99%
Non-Incumbents10.01%

Contributions within Florida

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has six reservations spread throughout southern Florida.  Within Florida, contributions to congressional candidates often matched the districts where those reservations are located.

CandidatePartyFL Congressional DistrictTotal Contribution
Stephanie MurphyD7$2,800
Darren SotoD9$5,600
Charlie CristD13$14,000
Kathy CastorD14*$5,600
Greg SteubeR17*$5,600
Brian MastR18*$5,600
Ted DeutchD22*$5,600
Debbie Wasserman-SchultzD23*$5,600
Mario Diaz-BalartR25*$2,800
Donna ShalalaD27$5,600
Total / Average$58,800 / $5,880
* = district containing Seminole reservation
FL SenatorPartyTotal ContributionNote
Marco RubioR$10,000Contribution made to Reclaim America PAC
Rick ScottR$15,000Contribution made to Let’s Get to Work PAC
Neither Rubio or Scott was up for reelection in the 2019-2020 cycle.

Analysis of Florida Contributions

Nationwide, the contributions of the nine indigenous tribes varies. While the Seminole tribe does not contribute as much as several others, it must be remembered that each tribe makes their own independent decisions on contribution amounts and who those amounts go to. Last, these nine tribes operate the largest indigenous owned casinos across the United States, thus their ability to make contributions is comparative and illustrative of the various levels tribes give to candidates.

The contributions of the Seminole Tribe within Florida are all to incumbent candidates, and each candidate district contains or is adjacent to a district containing a Seminole reservation.  The exception to this is Florida district 7 candidate Stephanie Murphy.  Murphy is currently appointed to the very influential House Ways and Means Committee, which is the chief tax writing committee in the House.  Charlie Crist is currently appointed to the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for passing the House federal budget.  Crist also has a long history in Florida politics, having served in various roles since the mid-1990’s, including being elected Florida governor from 2007-2011.  Darren Soto serves Florida district 9 and he is also appointed to the House Natural Resources Committee, where he serves on the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.  Bills relating to tribes from across the country will typically come before this subcommittee at some point.  Donna Shalala serves Florida district 27, and she is appointed to the House Committee on Rules.  This committee is responsible for setting virtually all rules relating to a bill before the House.

The remaining House candidates serve districts that contain Seminole reservations.  On its surface there does not appear to be a correlation to the tribe beyond proximity.  Contributions to all Florida candidates does not appear to be linked to party or ideology.  As the tribe is supporting incumbents, it can be assumed that the goal is access to the candidates in some formal capacity.  As the saying goes, all politics is local and it serves the interest of the tribe to know the Congressmen and Congresswomen who represent their tribal citizens.  Further, the government to government relationship between the tribe and Congress is fostered through relationship building.  Having elected representatives as allies helps the tribe in its efforts to maintain its independence and sovereignty.  

The Seminole contributions to the PACs supporting Sen. Rubio and Sen. Scott can be seen in several ways.  First, as both senators were not up for reelection they were not actively soliciting campaign contributions.  The purpose of a PAC is to elect candidates, and the tribe did contribute to the PACs of both senators.  Although not direct campaign contributions, these can be viewed in that respect as the PACs work to reelect the senators.  Secondly, in a similar vein as the House, the tribe is seeking to maintain a relationship with the senators.  Senators are elected every six years, and the positions are very influential.  The relationships between the tribe and senators is not established overnight, thus ongoing contributions can be seen as building blocks.  

National Contributions

CandidateParty – State – RaceTotal Contribution
Mark KellyD – AZ – Senate$6,700
Ben Ray LujanD – NM – Senate$5,600
Sharice DavidsD – KS – House$5,625
Deb HaalandD – NM – House$5,600
Tom ColeR – OK – House$5,600
Ruben GallegoD – AZ – House$2,800
Paul CookR – CA – House$2,800
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee$35,000
Donald TrumpR – Presidential$3,385
Joe BidenD – Presidential$2,274

Analysis of National Contributions

Senate candidates Mark Kelly and Ben Ray Lujan are both democrats running in states that have high percentages of Indigenous people.  Both Kelly and Lujan are non-incumbents, but they are facing different races.  Kelly is running against an incumbent, which negatively impacts him, but he has received massive support in Arizona and nationally.  Polls show Kelly with a current advantage in his race.  Lujan, on the other hand, is running in a race where there is no incumbent.  Tom Udall (D) is retiring from the Senate at the end of his term, and Lujan is running to replace him.  Udall currently serves on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and given the high percentage of Indigenous people in New Mexico it can be assumed his replacement would seek the same committee assignment.

Representatives Sharice Davids, Deb Haaland, and Tom Cole are all members of indigenous tribes.  Davids and Haaland were first elected in 2018, and they are the first two indigenous women to serve in Congress. Tom Cole has represented Oklahoma’s 4th district since 2003.  All three candidates receive contributions from tribes from across the country.  Additionally, Rep. Haaland serves on the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the U.S.  The House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples currently has eleven members.  As mentioned previously, Rep. Haaland sits on the subcommittee, and she is joined by Rep. Ruben Gallego, Rep. Darren Soto, and Rep. Paul Cook.  Each of these members of Congress have received contributions from the Seminole Tribe.  

The Seminole contribution to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) stands out due to its amount, but this must be considered in context.  First, the purpose of the DCCC is to support the election efforts of Democratic party candidates from across the country.  The tribe is allowed to support any party, and election finance laws provide a higher limit to how much can be given.  Second, the tribe has historically given similar amounts to the Democratic party (see chart below).  The tribe has given to the Republican party, but the contributions largely go to the Democratic party.  

OrganizationYearContribution
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee2020$35,000
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee2009$34,000
Democratic National Committee2014$32,000
Democratic National Committee2011$30,800
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee2012$30,800
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee2017$30,000

Looking at present contribution efforts, the Seminole tribe tends to favor incumbent Democratic candidates.  In Florida, candidates with a proximal or congressional tie to the tribe can receive a contribution.  Nationally,  the correlation of contributions to indigenous tribes and indigenous representatives remains high.  The Seminole Tribe has contributed to the efforts of both presidential campaigns, but there appears to be no obvious favor to the candidates and the amount of each contribution is relatively low.  Although much attention is given to the executive branch in terms of country wide campaign giving, the Seminole tribe does not contribute in a meaningful or preferential amount.  

Lobbyists

Another way the Seminole tribe has attempted to influence the federal government is through the use of lobbyists.  Lobbying is the lawful attempt to influence policies and actions of elected representatives and government agencies.  Lobbying is a common practice and can be performed by any person, but access to high-powered lobbyists comes at a price.  

YearLobbying Total AmountLobbyist Employed
2020$220,000 (total through Q1-Q2)4
2019$470,0004
2018$520,0003
2017$530,0009
2016$550,0009
2015$660,0007
2014$650,00012
2013$750,00011
2012$590,00013
2011$640,0008
Total / Average$5,580,000 / $558,0008

The purpose of lobbying is to influence current legislative or government agency efforts.  The cost to employ lobbyist ranges, but generally the cost is higher if the lobbyist has served in a government agency before.  The cost can go even higher if the lobbyist has served in an elected position, such as House representative or Senator.  The ability of lobbyists to shape legislation and policy is recognized through strict legislative efforts, such as the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, that aim to increase accountability into the profession.  Thus, the use of lobbyists is a normal part of business for large entities such as the Seminole tribe, and the expense can often be justified by the end product of favorable legislation and governmental policy.  

Final Word

The citizens of the Seminole Tribe have a common heritage and shared culture, which lends to the tribe’s ability to navigate the present U.S. political climate.  The tribe has always sought to maintain its independence and self-governing responsibility, and to be successful at this the tribe must pursue efforts to build relationships with the U.S. federal government.  Further, the tribe also needs to have a presence as legislation and policies are being written.  To these ends, contributing to candidates and employing lobbyists are a necessity.  

There must be trust in the decisions regarding the spending of funds, especially considering the divisive nature of politics.  Tribal citizens have their own political ideologies, and these may or may not mesh with how the tribe is presently allocating contribution funds.  Despite these individual beliefs, it must be remembered that the tribe represents the collective good of all present and future tribal citizens.  What’s good for the tribe as a whole, is good for all individual Seminoles.

Lastly, tribal leaders are accountable to the people.  To further gain the trust of the people there needs to be an increased openness to the tribal decision-making process.  In the instance of contributions, a discussion on the giving strategy is a logical starting point.  The tribal people deserve an explanation as to why certain parties or candidates are important to the interests of the tribe.  Again, this may not mesh with personal ideologies, but the citizens of the tribe recognize what’s good for the tribe, is good for all individual Seminoles.  

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Filed under Government, Seminole Tribe

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