• Politics

In a Toss-up House Race, the Fight for Asian American Voters Gets Messy

8 minute read

The campaign signs that popped up around Orange County, Calif., last week with Jay Chen’s name on them weren’t Jay Chen’s.

“China’s Choice” they read, the phrase punctuated by a gold star on a red background, mimicking the flag of China. For Chen, a Democrat vying to unseat Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, the attack was as notable for its offensive message as for its execution. He and Steel are competing in one of the most heavily Asian American districts in the country.

In some areas, signs labeling him “China’s Choice” wouldn’t be such a problem. But in the home of the largest Little Saigon in the nation, where tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans bitter towards China and communism reside, the signs put up by his opponent were an unambiguous insult.

“We’ve seen outrage in the community over her conduct, and this is going to backfire on her,” Chen predicts.

The hotly contested race between Chen and Steel is unfolding in one of America’s most diverse congressional battlegrounds, a suburban seat where Democrats have a slight advantage on paper and where a plurality of voters, as well as both candidates, are Asian American.

Throughout the year, issues of identity have repeatedly emerged as flashpoints. When Chen suggested in the spring that “you kind of need an interpreter” to understand Steel, she accused him of mocking her accent and spoke with pride about being a first-generation Korean American immigrant. For months, her campaign hammered him on a vote he took years ago as a school board member in support of a China-backed educational initiative. A few weeks ago, Vietnamese American voters began receiving mailers from Steel’s campaign painting Chen, who is Taiwanese American, as a communist sympathizer.

“Steel is trying to exploit generational trauma in the Vietnamese American community,” Chen says. “These attacks are meant to incite fear and distrust in the Vietnamese community. They’re meant to reopen wounds for her own political benefit.”

The district includes thousands of Chinese Americans that the anti-China strategies stand to offend. But even among the Vietnamese Americans that make up the biggest Asian American population in the district, Steel’s tactic is risky, and has drawn pushback in the Vietnamese-language press. Through her campaign, Steel declined to comment for this story.

Leaders in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community say such strategies play on stereotypes and treat the community as monolithic. They expect young voters, especially, to recoil.

As executive director of the Orange County Civic Engagement Table, a progressive group, Jonathan Paik helped advocate for the new district lines, which united many low-income Asian American communities. Now, he fears their needs are getting lost as both sides try to position the homeland politics of various groups as deciding issues.

“That’s the lost opportunity that we have seen in this upcoming November election,” Paik says. “Our voices and our experiences living in this district are not being centered.”

‘Stopping China Is Personal’

The fierce battle in Orange County comes as Democrats face cause for concern with Asian American voters nationwide. A new poll of Asian American voters across battleground states and districts, including Steel’s, shows support for a generic Democrat congressional candidate has dropped five points since a similar poll in 2020, from 56% to 51%. The Asian American voters surveyed also indicated that they trusted Republicans more on the economy and cost of living, top issues for Asian Americans and all voters in today’s turbulent economy.

The poll, conducted by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group and shared exclusively with TIME, makes it clear Democrats can’t take Asian American voters for granted. The party seems to be losing enthusiasm among AAPI voters in a way that mirrors the general population—even as the poll shows that 4 in 5 Asian Americans say they are highly motivated to vote this year.

The poll finds some good news for Democrats as well. Nearly a quarter of the Asian Americans surveyed consider gun control, an area of traditional Democratic strength, their top issue. And the poll found Asians Americans trust Democrats more on abortion, an issue the party has made a top talking point since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Yet the poll also reveals the ways in which both parties risk losing AAPI voters by treating them as a monolith. It found Indian Americans provide the highest support to a generic Democrat on the ballot at 57%.

This kind of in-depth polling of Asian Americans is rare. Few political polls examine the dozens of disparate subgroups that fall under the umbrella of AAPI. Some don’t even include Asian Americans, deeming their numbers insignificant.

“For people who are not part of the Asian American community, here is some insight into how culturally complex the work is [and] how much more time and energy needs to be spent to understand who we are and how to mobilize us,” says Nadia Belkin, the executive director of the Asian American Power Network.

To make this poll happen, AAPI-focused groups like Belkin’s partnered with other progressive organizations like EMILY’s List, the Service Employees International Union, and Priorities USA.

There may be no district in the country where the complex dynamics of winning the Asian American vote are more strongly at play than California’s redrawn 45th congressional district. A third of the voters in the district were born outside of the U.S. Were demographics destiny, that statistic might give Democrats reason to rejoice. Instead, they are scrambling to shore up support.

Later this week, members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus are heading to the district to campaign with Chen. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened an office in Little Saigon at the beginning of this year.

AAPI leaders still doubt the party is doing enough. They want to see Democrats pouring more money into mailers and more candidates showing up on Asian American voters’ doorsteps across the country. They want the party to spend cold, hard cash on in-depth research into various AAPI communities. They want candidates and campaigns to really listen to the community groups doing the work on the ground.

“The Democratic Party has to be investing more,” says Brad Jenkins, the president and CEO of the AAPI Victory Fund. “We’re seeing record levels of investment from the Republican Party in reaching Asian American communities.”

That point may be especially salient in Orange County, which has long been home to trailblazing Asian American Republicans. They include Van Tran, the first Vietnamese American state legislator in the nation and Tri Ta, the first Vietnamese American elected mayor.

And then there’s Steel. Sam Oh, a GOP consultant who works for her, remembers first meeting Steel some fifteen years ago at a lunch she and her husband were hosting for Asian American GOP staffers. In the years since, she has continued to be a leader in the party’s AAPI outreach efforts. In 2020, she became one of the first California Republicans to unseat House Democrats in 26 years, in part through the support of Vietnamese voters in her current district, where the majority of voters are white. The new, redrawn district is majority-minority, and Republicans still see a lot of promise.

“That is largely an up-and-coming district,” says Orange County Republican Party Chair Fred Whitaker. “You don’t have huge enclaves of wealth. But you have huge enclaves of people who are hard-working and ambitious. Crime and homelessness, the bad state of education and the high cost of living—those hurt people who are on their way up more than people who’ve already reached the top.”

But even as Steel highlighted those issues in her campaign, she is also working to frame the race as one in which voters must consider who is more likely to stand up to China, devoting a recent campaign commercial to the issue. “I am Michelle Steel and I approve this message, because stopping China is personal,” she says in the ad.

As for her signs painting Chen as a puppet of China, despite the criticism they have drawn, some speculate that such tactics still might work.

“There’s a lot of people who are first generation who were really impacted by communism,” says Mary Anne Foo, the founder and executive director of the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance. “It could make them feel like, ‘I need to vote for Michelle.’”

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