In a suburban enclave on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Republican Young Kim, a South Korean immigrant, is running to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce.
Kim’s candidacy is years in the making for Republicans’ efforts in the Los Angeles area to deepen bonds with the Asian-American community and encourage people like her to run for office.
But that effort hit a wall in 2016.
Asian-Americans, who have tended to vote for Republicans on the local level in Southern California, went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the area and nationally.
Now, ahead of Tuesday’s primary, Democrats and Republicans in the jumbled congressional race that will feature 17 candidates on the ballot view Asian-American voters as a key demographic in their path to victory.
Kim, who spent Wednesday afternoon knocking on doors here in Fullerton, said the split between national and local offices can be explained by national Republicans focusing too much and too harshly on immigration, a comment that signals her complicated relationship with the President.
“The message is important, but I think the messengers are just as important,” said Kim, who explained that Republicans win with Asian voters when they argue they are trying to support legal immigration while discouraging those who come to the country illegally. “Whenever Republicans talk about immigration, people immediately think it is the part of anti-immigrant messaging. It is not.”
Operatives in Southern California believe Kim, a former state assemblywoman, will finish in first or second place in the June 5 primary, assuring her a spot on the November ballot. Questions remain about whether Democrats, given California’s unique primary process that makes it possible for members of one party to end up in both general election slots, will get locked out of the race.
Key to that outcome could be how Asian-American voters break in the contest, with operatives on both sides expecting a larger than normal turnout.
The Asian-American community has been growing substantially in Orange County. While they comprised 4% of residents in 1980, Asian-Americans represented 18% of residents in 2010. At 30%, the Asian-American electorate in the district Kim hopes to represent is even larger.
Data collected by Political Data Inc., show that that 26% of all absentee ballots were sent to Asian voters and that, to date, the overall California turnout has shown 11% of early voters are Asian, a number consistent with their overall share of the electorate.
Democrats have also focused on Asian-American outreach. Gil Cisneros, the veteran and lottery winner who has been backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has two deputy political directors focused on Asian-American outreach, one to the Korean American community and another to Chinese American voters. Like other campaigns, they provide Korean or Mandarin speaking voters campaign literature in those language, too.
Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, another Democrat running to replace Royce and flip the seat argues that Asian-Americans are skewing Democrat locally, and points to Trump and Republicans who support him as the reason.
“We really have seen a change in the way Asian-Americans are thinking and the way they are going to be voting (in the last two years),” said Tran, one six Democrats running. “They do have concerns about the way immigrants are being vilified in general. Those of us who are of different color and a different culture, people look at us with the same eye, whether or not we are documented. And I think that is a negative affect that President Trump and his administration has put on our community.”
Tran came to the United States from Vietnam as a child, part of the US effort to airlift Vietnamese orphans from the war-torn nation.
The tendency of Asian-Americans in Southern California to tilt towards Republicans in local races has worried Democrats in the area, including Asian-American members of the party eager to win elected office.
“I am a Democrat, but I don’t see the Democratic party doing enough to reach out to Asian voters,” said Jay Chen, a Taiwanese American who explored a run in the district’s crowded primary. Chen challenged Royce for the seat in 2012 but lost by 15 percent.
“The danger for Democrats is assuming that because Asians rejected Trump for President, it makes them reliably Democratic voters,” Chen said. “Asians in this district are very non-partisan and tend to vote for the candidate, not the party. If the candidate doesn’t reach out, they will not earn that vote.”
Chan, despite once looking to oust Royce, was complementary of his efforts to reach out to the Asian-American community, noting that he often reached out to the community and opened a satellite campaign office in the heavily Taiwanese American area his office was located during their 2012 run.
“It was a smart move,” Chan said with a laugh.
Royce has gone all in for Kim. Not only has he endorsed her, but he has also raised money for his one-time aide and appeared in a television ad touting her credentials. As Kim walked from door-to-door on Wednesday, she handed out a flyer featuring a picture of her standing next to Royce.
The campaign has a similar flyer for Korean and Mandarin speaking households in each language.
But Kim is far from the only Republican candidate in the CA-39 race looking to make inroads with the Asian-American community.
Bob Huff, the former state Senate Minority Leader, has made a concerted effort to appeal to Asian-American voters, in part by using his Taiwanese wife, Mei Mei Huff, as a key surrogate to the community.
“Many in the Chinese community are familiar with Bob,” Mei Mei Huff wrote in a piece of mail that went to voters in both Mandarin and English. “Chinese voters can absolutely play a key role in this race.”