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In California, two Asian Americans fight for a seat in the House — and with each other

As the midterms loom, one key House race in California is drawing significant attention both to Asian Americans in the district, and from them. 

Democrat Jay Chen is challenging Republican incumbent Michelle Steel in a newly drawn and the highly competitive congressional district that encompasses the northwestern portion of Orange County. The race features a rare matchup between two Asian Americans, and the result hinges on Asian Americans, who make up about a third of the district’s voters. 

But some of the candidate’s language and allegations about links to China and communism have only frustrated many in that community.

The district was undergoing changes even before being redrawn after the 2020 census. While Orange County had once been regarded as a Republican stronghold, the last few election cycles have proven it to be purple territory. As of 2022, almost 38% of county residents registered as Democrats, slightly edging out Republicans, at just over 32%. Another quarter reported no party preference. 

A voting center in the Orange County city of La Habra, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2021.Jae C. Hong / AP file

Asian Americans driving a demographic and political shift

Experts say that the race proves a critical point they’ve emphasized time and again: that with rapidly changing demographics across the country, parties can’t afford to ignore the Asian American vote.  

“I think here, we’re seeing a wake-up call,” Connie Chung Joe, chief executive of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, told NBC News. “But I think still within this country as a whole, there’s this lack of recognition and understanding about the importance and value of the Asian American voter.”

Changes in the community’s party preferences have been driven by the growth of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Orange County, home to the third-largest AAPI population in the country. The racial group is the area’s fastest growing, surging by more than 40% from 2000 to 2010, according to a report by Joe’ group on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the county. Within the electorate, almost half are of Vietnamese descent, one of the few Asian American groups that tends to lean right. But Janelle Wong, senior researcher at nonprofit group AAPI Data, said that they split with the GOP on a number of issues. 

“If you look at Vietnamese, they don’t look like other Republicans … They are super progressive on health care and to some extent, affirmative action. They’re very progressive when it comes to redistribution, such that you tax the rich,” Wong said. 

The complexities at play have, in part, fueled a contentious and, at times, nasty race for the Asian American vote, Wong said, as both candidates have tried to paint themselves as the most authentically Asian American choice. Steel, 67, who in 2020 became one of the first three Korean American women elected to Congress, came to the U.S. when she was in her early 20s, opening a clothing store with her family. Before being elected to Congress, she served as supervisor and chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. 

While her campaign declined to go into specifics about their Asian American and Pacific Islander outreach, they mentioned that Steel still knocks on doors every weekend, meeting voters. In a statement to NBC News, Steel called herself a “proud first generation American who came to the U.S. with very little.” 

“I understand the difficulties Asian Americans face when it comes to racism, high taxes and an overbearing, costly government that makes it difficult for hardworking families to succeed,” Steel said. 

Chen, 44, is currently a lieutenant commander in the Navy reserves. He attended public schools growing up and went to Harvard University on a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship, then worked for a consulting firm. He ran for a House seat in 2020 before withdrawing. 

Chen’s campaign said that roughly 40% of its staff is Asian American and Pacific Islander, and that it has a dedicated Vietnamese outreach coordinator. It said it has paid advertisements across several Asian languages including Vietnamese, Korean and Mandarin, and has additionally done direct voter contact in Tagalog, Hindi and Punjabi. In a statement, the campaign said that as a small-business owner and community college trustee, Chen is “intimately familiar” with issues that matter to the Asian Americans in the district. 

“The son of immigrants from Taiwan, Jay will fight for working families regardless of ethnicity and will stand up for human rights at home and abroad,” Chen’s campaign said in a statement. 

A fixation on China frustrates voters

The campaigns have some shared priorities, including addressing growing inflation and crime. But China has become, perhaps, the race’s most divisive issue and the one generating the sharpest barbs. Last month, Steel sent out mailers featuring a photoshopped Chen holding Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” in front of a children’s classroom. Adorning the room are the faces of several communist leaders, in addition to a Black power symbol, Sen. Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign logo, and a Chinese flag among other signs. 

“Jay Chen invited China into our children’s classes,” the flyer reads in Vietnamese. 

The mailers prompted Chen and others to accuse Steel of “red-baiting,” or trying to discredit someone by falsely tying them to Communism. 

Steel has also cited in campaign videos and press releases Chen’s 2010 vote in favor of creating a Mandarin program, funded by the Confucius Institute, a network of Chinese language and culture centers partially backed by the Chinese government. They began opening up in the U.S. during the Bush administration and aroused suspicion. By 2020, the State Department designated the institutes “as a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China.”

In a statement, Steel’s campaign did not address accusations of red-baiting but doubled down on its previous stance that Chen has refused to explain why he supported the Confucius Institutes. 

Chen’s campaign responded by saying in a statement that while the program was once accepted across the U.S., the Chinese Communist Party has evolved into an “aggressor,” and that Chen aligns with the State Department’s analysis. 

Steel has also accused Chen of mocking her accent after he said that “you kind of need an interpreter to figure out exactly what she’s saying” during an event in April. Chen later responded in an op-ed saying that his comments referred to what he called Steel’s “convoluted” talking points and platform. 

In other Facebook ads, Chen similarly accused Steel and her husband, Shawn Steel, of having links to communism and officials in Asia. The Chen campaign did not address whether it had also intentionally tried to tie Steel to communism through the ads, but accused Steel of being “willing to stoop to the lowest level of politicking to remain in office and can not be trusted.”

Mary Anne Foo, executive director of the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, said that anti-communist and “tough on China” rhetoric has been used in the past to appeal to the area’s older Vietnamese population, which survived the Vietnam War and associates upheaval with communism. But it’s not effective with everyone and some see this type of campaigning as a “scare tactic” rather than informative, Foo said.

“I think there’s a lot of voters who are thinking, ‘I need to know beyond this,’” Foo said. “And that’s what we’re hearing a lot — of people getting upset, saying, ‘Why are people who are running for office doing that? They’re just trying to use our trauma against us.’”

Organizers and experts say that the tactics used by Steel and Chen, like many other Asian American candidates in the past, are most likely symptomatic of being seen as perpetual foreigners. Therefore, they’re actively trying to “prove” their Americanness. It’s something, Joe said, that white candidates, for example, can “take for granted.”

But Wong added that accusing another Asian American candidate of being disloyal “hurts the whole Asian American community.”

As fiery as the race has been, it’s also reflective of a political maturation within the Asian American community, experts say. Descriptive representation, they say, isn’t enough.

“This is just a great example of how rich and diverse our community is,” Joe said. “And really, people need to become far more sophisticated in how they try to approach our community and really look at it from a more nuanced and disaggregated way.”

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