Jay Chen and Michelle Steel
Washington CNN  — 

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California’s 45th Congressional District, straddling Orange and Los Angeles counties, is as perfect an illustration of the diversity and power of Asian American voters as might be possible.

The contest features a duel between two Asian Americans: Jay Chen, a Democrat, is battling Michelle Steel, the Republican incumbent, for a House seat. And the Asian American voters who make up about a third of the district’s electorate will play a significant role in determining the outcome of the intensely competitive race.

“I think that this race epitomizes the diversity of the Asian American community. You’re seeing a Korean immigrant incumbent, who’s a Republican, being challenged by a Taiwanese American Democrat, and her strategy is to stoke anti-Chinese sentiment by campaigning in the Vietnamese immigrant community,” Connie Chung Joe, the CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, told CNN, referring to criticisms that Steel is seeking to tap into anxieties about China’s influence in the region by calling Chen “China’s Choice” in some of her attack ads. “And when you look at the district, you see that it’s heavily Asian American.”

Experts hope that the contest will do two things: underline the fact that Asian American voters are no monolith, and snap into focus the importance of investing in campaign outreach to a ballooning electoral force.

“I see this race as a kind of wake-up call that the API community is vast and important,” Joe said. “Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial demographic in this country, and they do vote. Georgia showed us in 2020 how critical these voters can be in swinging things. And we’re seeing that again today.”

Just a few years ago, Asian Americans emerged as a key voting bloc and helped to put Joe Biden in the White House and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the US Senate.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, the founder and director of the nonprofit group AAPI Data and a professor of political science and public policy at the University of California, Riverside, echoed some of Joe’s sentiments.

“The Asian American vote, even though it’s not large, is big enough to make a difference,” he explained. “This district in California is part of that story.”

What are the demographics of the 45th District?

It’s hard to overstate how diverse the 45th District is.

An independent commission recently redrew the district to keep together residents of Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese descent, and grant them greater electoral power.

“This district brings together the Vietnamese community of Little Saigon and goes up into Little India,” Sara Sadhwani, a senior researcher at AAPI Data and an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, told CNN. “That being said, while those two historic neighborhoods are there, the area also has a large number of Korean Americans and Chinese Americans.”

The district’s political diversity is striking, too.

Data from the Pew Research Center show that there’s broad convergence among Asian Americans on issues such as education, violent crime and health care. But as with any group, when we move away from public opinion and toward party identification, there are meaningful differences.

Volunteers Grace Pai and Syed Hussain speak with eligible AAPI voters outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

“You find that most Asian Americans are Democratic-leaning, but the strength of that lean varies by national origin or by age or by immigrant generation,” Ramakrishnan said.

A Pew survey from August reported that 57% of English-speaking, Asian registered voters said that they’d likely back the Democratic candidate in the House race in their district, while only 26% said that they’d support the Republican candidate.

Per AAPI Data, Indian Americans are the most Democratic-leaning group among Asian American voters. Meanwhile, Vietnamese Americans lean more Republican than voters of other Asian backgrounds or heritages. (Notably, former President Donald Trump seemed to make slight gains with some Asian Americans in 2020.)

Joe painted a more vivid picture of this variation, though data are limited.

“As a whole, Asian Americans tend to be slightly more Democratic than Republican,” she explained. “But when you cut into the subgroups, what you find is that the older generation of Vietnamese immigrants, for instance, tends to be very largely Republican. And that’s true with certain other groups, too. Older Korean immigrants tend to be more Republican. But younger Asian American voters tend to be more Democratic and progressive.”

Steel appears to be trying to use some of these differences to her advantage. Earlier this year, her campaign sent mailers to Vietnamese Americans in Orange County that portray Chen as a communist teacher.

“Especially among the first generation of Vietnamese Americans who escaped Vietnam and have carried with them to the US feelings of persecution, there’s a real sense that communism should absolutely not take root here,” Sadhwani said. “Whenever you invoke communism, it draws attention and stokes fear among some voters about the politics a Democrat might have.”

She added that it’s interesting to see the aforementioned communities battle between a Korean American and a Taiwanese American.

“We’re definitely talking about a kind of ethnic representation for the district, no matter who wins,” Sadhwani said.

What are broader takeaways from the race?

The contest underscores that campaign outreach to Asian American voters requires investment and sophistication, according to experts.

“One of the things about API voters is that many of them are naturalized citizens, and English isn’t their first language,” Joe explained. “Asian American voters aren’t only a lot of ethnicities. We also speak so many different languages. If you look here in Southern California, there are more than 40 different API ethnic groups that speak more than 40 different languages.”

In other words, everything must be language accessible.

The Asian American Power Network, a left-leaning advocacy group, kicked off a $10 million push in September to mobilize Asian American voters in seven battleground states who speak different languages.

“When you think about the entire country and how to reach groups, those on-the-ground mobilization efforts often involve people who are from the community and who speak the language of the community getting information to voters and explaining to them why it’s important to vote,” Joe added.

The country’s two main political parties, experts say, appear to struggle to appeal to Asian American voters.

“There’s a kind of model for how to talk with Black voters. Even if the model needs to be refined, there’s a starting point,” Michael Li, a senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, told CNN. “With Asian American voters, outreach can be more complicated. I think that both parties are still trying to figure out the best way to engage a group of diverse voters.”

Sadhwani expressed similar sentiments about the state of outreach to Asian American voters.

“What we’ve consistently found over the past 15 years of survey analysis is many Asian Americans – and Latinos – reporting that no one bothers to knock on their door or call them to encourage them to vote, because those voters don’t often pop up on lists of likely voters. And that’s a real problem,” she said.

This isn’t to downplay crucial changes in recent years. Over the last few election cycles, we’ve seen candidates in places with growing Asian American populations and in competitive districts – from Orange County to Houston to Northern Virginia to the suburbs of Atlanta – begin to reach out to Asian American communities, and do so in culturally competent ways.

But are parties embracing this mindset on a national level?

“Hard to say,” Sadhwani cautioned. “It doesn’t seem like parties are necessarily putting a whole lot of stock into outreach – except in a handful of really competitive places.”