Members of the country’s fastest growing minority group are running for federal office, dozens of them as Democratic candidates deliberately playing up their Asian roots against a president they say demonizes the immigrants that make America great.
The candidates include former refugees from Vietnam and children of immigrants from South Korea and India. They live in places where Asian Pacific Americans make up a large chunk of the electorate and in places where they do not. Their chances of winning vary.
But the candidates’ unabashed celebration of their foreign ties is notable for a group of people who have had to prove their “American-ness,” no matter how long their families have been in the country.
“I think partly it is a reaction to the current administration which has in its policies and statements sent out a very xenophobic message,” says Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who is campaigning for a third term in the House.
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“It’s also a recognition that what makes America great is immigration and the American dream; it’s what people all over the world come to seek,” he said.
Christine Chen, executive director of the nonpartisan Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, or APIAVote, says 2018 could be a watershed year for civic participation.
Asians, who make up 6 percent of the population, have traditionally lagged in voting due to language and cultural barriers and minimal outreach from political parties, she says.
In the 2016 presidential election, for example, about 49 percent of eligible Asian voters cast ballots. That was less than the 65 percent for whites and 60 percent for blacks but slightly higher than the 48 percent figure for Latinos.
It’s hard to say definitively how many Asian Pacific Americans are running for Congress, although The Associated Press identified at least 80 candidates of both parties. More than a dozen candidates are Republicans, and the rest are Democrats, including incumbents.
There are currently 18 Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders in Congress; three are in the Senate.
“What’s fascinating with the congressional candidates is they’re coming from everywhere,” Chen said, ticking off races in Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, New Jersey and Texas. “What we’re hoping is with all these people running, and if they win, that will continue to change how people perceive the community.”
Among the candidates are nearly three dozen Asian Pacific Americans seeking to overturn Republican seats in the U.S. House as part of a broader Democratic surge to take control of the chamber. Some of them have already been eliminated, but others have advanced.
Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, for example, won Ohio’s Democratic primary on Tuesday. He faces incumbent Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, in November.
A National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman, Jesse Hunt, said that the GOP also has compelling and diverse candidates. Republican Young Kim, for example, is a Korean-American who is on the June 5 California primary ballot.
“When my family came to this country, we came legally,” she says in a 30-second campaign ad. “And not because we wanted handouts, but because we wanted the opportunity America provided to succeed on our own.”
For former Groupon executive Suneel Gupta, a Democrat, it is precisely because of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies that he’s running for an open seat outside Detroit, Michigan.
“It is literally the moment that I realized my daughter’s first president is going to be Donald Trump, and knowing that when he wants to ‘Make America Great Again,’ he wants a few less people that look like us around,” Gupta said.
Political preferences vary among Asian ethnic groups although overall, more favor Democrats over Republicans, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside and director of AAPI Data, which provides demographic information on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
About 40 percent of Asian American voters are undecided or unaffiliated.
Asians once voted Republican, with 55 percent choosing George H.W. Bush over Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. But by 2012, Barack Obama had received nearly 75 percent of their vote and in 2016, Asian Pacific Americans overwhelmingly went for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Ramakrishnan says Asian American voters were turned off by the Republican Party and Trump rhetoric over immigration. Indeed, more than 70 percent of Asian adults in the U.S. are born abroad, according to the Pew Research Center.
Asian American voters soured further on the GOP after recent proposals to limit family-based immigration, a legal method used heavily by Chinese, Indians and other Asians to come to America. They also expressed horror over Trump’s executive orders limiting travel from Muslim-majority countries, which they said reminded them of the Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II.
“As the son of immigrants myself, it felt very personal, it felt very un-American,” said David Min, a law professor in Southern California who is among several Democrats challenging Republican Rep. Mimi Walters.
The stereotype of Asian Americans as “foreigners” was recently revived publicly when U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke used the Japanese word “konnichiwa” to greet a fourth-generation American of Japanese descent.
Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa had just relayed the story of her grandfathers, who were incarcerated along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, their loyalty questioned by the American government.
“I was stunned,” said Hanabusa, who is running for governor of Hawaii, of Zinke’s comment. “The first thought that came to my mind is, this is why Japanese Americans were interned.”
Pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran, who is seeking an open seat held by retiring Rep. Ed Royce in Southern California’s Orange County, expresses dismay that under Trump, the country that took her in as a 9-year-old refugee from Vietnam is closing its borders.
“This is a country that is welcoming and loving and kind and compassionate, and it has to continue for others,” she said.
In New Jersey, the party is banking on national security expert Andy Kim to beat Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Trump supporter who helped revive the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The district has a tiny Asian population, but Kim says he’s running on his lifelong ties to a district that Obama carried twice. Kim, whose parents emigrated from Korea, is a longtime federal employee who served in Afghanistan under General David Petraeus.
“What I want people to be thinking about is that I’m the kid next door who’s doing everything I can to fight for this land that gave my family everything,” Kim said.