Halloween decorations are displayed inside the Asian Garden Mall, a predominantly Vietnamese shopping center in the Little Saigon neighborhood of Westminister, Calif., on Oct. 8, 2022. (Bing Guan/For The Washington Post)
WESTMINSTER, Calif. — The mailers showed Democrat Jay Chen as a teacher in a Communist classroom, surrounded by a Chinese flag and an array of posters tapping into the conservative backlash against schools’ handling of race and gender. There were interlocking symbols for male and female; a clenched fist emblematic of the Black Lives Matter movement; and an “equity” sign with a Black child raised above their peers.
“Jay Chen invited China into our children’s classes,” a blackboard read in Vietnamese. It was emblematic of the bitter debate over GOP tactics in California’s 45th Congressional District — an Orange County battleground at the heart of Republicans’ efforts to chip away at Democrats’ clear advantage with Asian American voters nationwide.
Republicans are targeting their message to this fast-growing group that turned out like never before in 2020 and favored Democrats by a wide margin, though less comfortably than in the past by some measures. In mailers and TV ads, GOP groups and candidates have tailored broad criticisms of crime, schools and left-wing politics to an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community rattled by anti-Asian assaults, divided over affirmative action and full of immigrants whose families fled communism.
In reaching out to one minority group, however, Republicans have fueled complaints that they are pitting racial and ethnic communities against one another. One organization that supports Asian Americans in government recently accused Rep. Michelle Steel (R) of stoking “interracial hatred” and “interethnic conflict” with her campaign against Chen. Allegations of racism have flown from both sides.
Republicans increasingly see Asian Americans as part of their electoral coalition, two years after President Donald Trump made modest gains with the group despite his continued anti-Asian rhetoric. That was the same year two Korean American Republicans — Steel and Young Kim — flipped their Orange County House seats red, as many Asian American neighborhoods shifted to the right. And conservatives are buoyed by election results this year in San Francisco, where about a third of residents are Asian American and where voters recalled several liberal school board members and a prosecutor criticized as too lenient.
Nadia Belkin, the executive director of Asian American Power Network, a left-leaning coalition of state-based groups that is spending $10 million this fall to turn out Asian Americans in California and swing states, conceded that Republicans’ messaging on issues such as education and public safety “is pulling the Asian American community towards them” and in some cases making Asian Americans “feel seen in a way that progressives have not.”
But she was sharply critical of the strategy some on the right are employing. “Republicans are not shy about using this really divisive, race-baiting language to try and court us,” Belkin said.
Belkinpointed to Asian American voters in California and across the country receivingmailers claiming that the political left is “engaged in widespread racial discrimination against WHITE and ASIAN Americans” and that “equity is a code word” for excluding certain groups from jobs, college admissions and government benefits. The mailers are from America First Legal, a conservative nonprofit led by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller that has also been running radio ads in Georgia on “racism against White people.”
“We are simply educating the American people about attempts from big government, big business, and big education to discriminate based on race,” America First Legal’s vice president, Gene Hamilton, said in a statement, pointing to this week’s arguments in a Supreme Court case that could block colleges from considering race in applications.
Another conservative group with overlapping leadership, Citizens for Sanity — one of the top spenders last month in the midterm elections — released an ad with graphic footage of physical attacks on Asian Americans. The ad blames the Biden administration and other Democrats for anti-Asian violence, saying they have been soft on crime.
A Pew survey last year found that about a third of Asian American adults feared during the coronavirus pandemic that someone would threaten or assault them because of their race or ethnicity, far more than in any other group. Many of them blamed rising violence on the pandemic, the scapegoating of Asian Americans, and specifically Trump, who often linked the virus to the country where it was first detected and even called it the “Kung-Flu.”
The recall this summer of Chesa Boudin, a liberal district attorney in San Francisco, also underscored some Asian Americans’ desire for a tougher response to crime.
Both parties have invested heavily to win over Asian American voters in Orange County — a traditionally conservative pocket of California that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and Joe Biden carried in 2020. Democrats are fielding Asian American challengers to Steel and Kim this year while focusing on abortion rights and gun control, two issues that poll well with Asian Americans.
Kim has long been favored to win, and a House Democratic operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss Steel’s race acknowledged that it appears less competitive than Democrats had hoped earlier in the year. Kim and Steel are longtime friends who vacationed together and babysat each other’s children before serving together in Congress.
Beyond their message on crime, education and the economy, Republicans attribute their success here to their candidates and concrete investments. At a canvassing launch one Saturday morning, Steel’s husband ticked through the seven languages her campaign was using to contact voters: “Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog … ” Addressing a gaggle of mostly high school students, Shawn Steelframed their work as part of a broader project for the GOP.
This race would “show the Republican Party how to reach out and get new communities that they haven’t been able to get before,” he said, in front of bright orange signs promising that his wife would “Create Jobs!” and “Lower Taxes!” Then he ceded the floor to an Asian American candidate for statewide office, Lanhee Chen, who rallied the crowd.
Nationally, the data on political shifts among Asian Americans is mixed. Exit polling from 2020 showed Asian American voters moving toward Trump by seven points compared with 2016 — but they still supported Biden by a 27-point margin. Christine Chen, executive director of the nonpartisan group Asian Pacific Islander American Vote, noted that exit polling is rarely conducted in languages beyond English and Spanish, limiting its ability to capture the Asian American community.
Her group’s multilingual polling shows the share of Asian Americans who identify as Republican ticking down this year after rising slightly in 2018 and 2020.
Democrats say they are not taking Asian American voters for granted and are also working to reach them with advertising and canvassing. Vice President Harris, who is Black and Indian American, will travel to Chicago on Sunday to speak to Asian American voters, according to the AAPI Victory Fund super PAC.
Jay Chen, a Navy reservist and former school board member, said in an interview that he thinks “Asian American voters are going to see who really stands behind them on not just the pocketbook issues, but also on the social issues, which they care about — whether that’s gun violence, abortion rights, or who’s going to combat anti-Asian hate.” But he listed inflation and the economy first when asked about their top issues.
Asian Americans make up about 6 percent of the country but more than a fifth of Orange County, according to census data, and Asian Americans make up nearly 38 percent of registered voters in the district where Chen and Steel are competing, according to analytics used by Democrats. That includes many Vietnamese Americans, who have long leaned more conservative than voters of other Asian heritages.
The Republican National Committee opened its first of 38 community centers this election cycle in Little Saigon, an Orange County business district at the center of the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam.
The community center identifies itself specifically as a “Vietnamese community center,” with a big picture of an American flag on the office front and a reminder about Election Day: “Nov. 8, 2022.” Nestled off a street of strip malls where signs for Asian American candidates crowd almost every corner, it hosts phone banks, letter-writing drives for veterans and, sometimes, practices for a local dance troupe, said Nainoa Johsens, the RNC’s director of Asian American Pacific media.
Republicans say their tough-on-crime message could have particular resonance across the country, with voters fearful after a string of assaults on Asian Americans — and Steel talks often about her opposition to “soft-on-crime” policies. But most prominently, Steel has echoed Republicans across the country warning of “indoctrination” in schools, leaning heavily into a message she also used in 2020 — trying to tie her opponent to communism.
Steel’s campaign says it is raising legitimate concerns about JayChen’s stance on Confucius Institutes — programs with funding from the Chinese government that teach Chinese language and culture in American schools. Chen voted for a “Confucius Classroom” program in 2010 as a local school board member, sparking a recall effort. The programs have drawn bipartisan opposition over the years, with the State Department labeling them a foreign mission in 2020 and declaring them “part of Beijing’s multifaceted propaganda efforts.”
Chen’s campaign manager, Lindsay Barnes, said that the programs were once “widely accepted” and that Chen agrees with the State Department’s analysis. Referencing the candidate’s military service in a statement, she said that as “a Taiwanese American who holds a Top Secret security clearance, Lt. Commander Jay Chen deeply understands the threat China poses to the United States.”
Exemplifying Democrats’ concerns about misinformation, one ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee shows Chen appearing to say, “We’re trying to indoctrinate our students in Communism,” when in fact he was saying Republicans would point to a school board vote as evidence “we were trying” to do that. (The ad’s narrator does continue with a caveat: “Politician Jay Chen mocks, but … ”)
A nonpartisan group promoting political representation for Asian Americans, the Asian Americans for Good Government Political Action Committee, recently condemned Steel over negative campaigning that it called dangerously divisive, accusing her of stoking “interracial hatred” and “interethnic conflict.” The group’s financial contributions have mostly gone to Democrats, but it has also given thousands to Kim.
Responding last month to the mailers depicting him as a Communist teacher, Chen assembled other Democratic leaders at the Vietnamese War memorial in Little Saigon, with a Vietnamese interpreter and Vietnamese media in attendance. “We need a leader who is willing to unite and not divide,” Chen said. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) asked why Steel had not denounced Trump’s attack on Elaine Chao, his former transportation secretary, who is Chinese American, as “China-loving” “Coco Chow.”
“She’s not supported minorities,” Takano said of Steel. “She’s not supported Asian Americans.”
Lance Trover, a spokesman for Steel’s campaign, did not comment on Trump’s use of a racial slur but noted that Steel has previously denounced “hate” against Asian Americans — and that Chen was accused of mocking Steel’s accent in the spring.
“You kind of need an interpreter to figure out exactly what she’s saying,” Chen had told an audience. “The more she speaks, the better for us.” He said later he was referring to Steel’s “convoluted talking points” rather than her accent, while Steel said his words were “offensive to all immigrants.”
Khoa Nguyen, 35, said he cares more about economic issues and Republicans’ promise of “less governmental control.” Nguyen voted twice for Trump, thinking he would shake things up, and also helped elect Steel, he said.
Asked about Trump’s “Coco Chow” comment, he said he would not “condone” the words, but did not dwell on the issue.
“I feel like each party very much has pros and cons,” he said.
Asif Mahmood, a Pakistani American Democrat running against Kim, said an Asian American doctor friend who usually votes Republican brought up the “Coco Chow” comments in a recent call unprompted — upset that he had not heard Kim criticizing Trump. Kim previously spoke out against Trump after he called the coronavirus the “Kung Flu.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Kim said “our leaders should focus on uniting Americans, not dividing us.”
Lanhee Chen, a GOP candidate for state controller in California who joined Steel for a canvassing kickoff, said comments like Trump’s make the GOP’s outreach to Asian Americans “considerably harder.”
“It’s remarkably damaging,” said the former policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, shaking his head outside Steel’s campaign office when asked about the “Coco Chow” remarks.
Democrats have poured much of their resources into hammering Steel and Kim on another issue: abortion. About three-quarters of Asian Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, more than in any other racial group, according to Pew polling. Steel signed onto an expansive federal abortion ban before Roe v. Wade was overturned, while Kim calls herself “pro-life with exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which opened an office in Little Saigon early this year, ran a digital ad on abortion in California and other states featuring an Asian American couple. Jay Chen has been running an abortion-focused TV ad, and Mahmood calls abortion the No. 1 issue of his campaign.
Abortion access is a major concern for Orange County voter Hieuhuy Pham, 25, who said there is “no choice” for him between the two parties. He criticized Republicans as extremist and said they try to pit minorities against one another. But he also acknowledged that he is part of a younger, more liberal generation of Vietnamese Americans.
Jada Yuan and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.