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In some tight House races, Asian-American voters could determine the winner

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I'm Ailsa Chang in Culver City, Calif., which is a state that's usually pretty predictable during election season - but this year, there are several competitive House races happening in Orange County, which has been a Republican stronghold for nearly a century, but has veered left in recent decades. One force behind that shift is the county's growing share of Asian American voters. Nationwide, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group. And while it is an ethnically diverse group of voters, nearly two-thirds of them voted Democrat in the last two elections. But now, in these midterm elections, Democrats are worried that some of that recent Asian American support could erode, which could make all the difference in close races, like California's 45th District. The campaign for the Democratic candidate in this race is unfolding on the second floor of a strip mall, right above a pho restaurant in the heart of Orange County.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Getting out the vote?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We need all the luck right now (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, we'll take all we can get.

CHANG: This is the campaign office of Democrat Jay Chen, one of two Asian Americans competing for this seat. And on a recent weekend, volunteers like Malia Williamson (ph) prepare to canvass voters in this majority Asian American congressional district.

MALIA WILLIAMSON: Asian American voters are - there's a bit of hesitation when it comes to voting. And we need to reach out to them and let them know that their vote does matter.

CHANG: Their vote does matter to Chen's campaign because Republican Michelle Steel is slightly favored to win this race. And, you know, even though Chen's a Democrat, his volunteers have been courting Republican Asian American voters who've grown disillusioned with their party. It's a shift that Huang Nguyen (ph), a Chen volunteer, has seen happening in his own Vietnamese American family.

HUANG NGUYEN: They were formerly Republicans, and they just feel like the Republican Party has been too extreme for them. And that is saying something. These are lifelong Republicans.

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: Over time, the Republican Party lost its way in terms of not investing enough in the growing Asian American population and diversifying Asian American population in Orange County.

CHANG: Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor at UC Riverside, and he directs the National Asian American Survey. He says this movement of Asian American voters away from the Republican Party - it's been happening all over this country in recent decades.

RAMAKRISHNAN: What you saw between 1992 and 2012 was the most dramatic shift for any group - not just racial group - any voting demographic in this country - shift from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. So Asian American voters voted for George H.W. Bush over Clinton. And by 2012, you know, they had among the strongest levels of support for Obama over Romney.

CHANG: One of those voters who swung to the left for Obama is Eugene Hung (ph), a 51-year-old Chinese American voter in Orange County.

EUGENE HUNG: 2012 was the first time I voted Democratic for the presidency.

CHANG: Hung says, look, he voted Republican for decades, but he voted for Obama in 2012 because he says he saw the Republican Party changing in ways that didn't make him feel included.

HUNG: We don't seem to be as welcome in the Republican Party. I mean, they purposely seem to be emphasizing rhetoric and policy that seems to say to people like me that we don't really need you.

CHANG: And now, Hung isn't registered with either party.

To better understand how this political shift is playing out today among Asian American voters, we talked to two longtime Republicans who are in the middle of rethinking their allegiance to the GOP. The first is a former Republican politician from Orange County, Tyler Diep, who is Vietnamese American. He was a state assemblyman and served on his city council. Now, Diep supports Republican Michelle Steel, but he recently de-registered from the Republican Party.

TYLER DIEP: I just can no longer wear the Republican label at this time, especially after the Republican Party tried to whitewash what happened on January 6, 2021. It was really the last straw for me. I believe, at this time, the Republican Party is not a party of ideas or principle. It is now becoming a party of one person. And because of that, I re-registered to no party preference or, in this case, like an independent.

CHANG: Meanwhile, Violet Ji, who's still a registered Republican, is volunteering for her district's Democratic House candidate, Katie Porter. Ji is a Chinese American voter in Orange County.

VIOLET JI: At this moment, I feel like registration doesn't really matter, right? I want to do the right thing and to choose the right leader rather than see the party. So I'm looking for a good candidate.

CHANG: I asked Diep and Ji what values first drew them to the Republican Party.

JI: So at that time, I feel like the Republican policies better to the middle class. They also cared about, like, family values, right? But I think, back then, family values doesn't mean you are, like, homophobia, you know? So there was no such divided opinions like today, you know? But back then, I feel like it was pretty calm and friendly.

CHANG: It didn't feel as polarizing - the politics back then.

JI: Yeah, exactly.

CHANG: What about you, Tyler? What drew you to the party?

DIEP: It was opportunity and the ability to make something out of my life by being a Republican. And what attracted me to stay in the party - the GOP - because of freedom, the ability to work hard and make something out of your life. As a first-generation immigrant, I valued that a lot. And I think that's something that also attracted a lot of Asian American to the Republican Party.

CHANG: Well, yeah, we just heard Tyler articulate some of the values that he believes are Republican values. Violet, was there some point - a time where you felt the Republican Party lost you in some way - lost your vote?

JI: Yeah, I feel like it is, right? So I think since Donald Trump, I started losing the faith on this party. I don't believe this party is Republican anymore, to be honest.

CHANG: I want to delve into that a little more. You felt alienated from the Republican Party increasingly during the Trump administration. Can you explain why? What did you see? What did you feel during the Trump administration that made you disconnect from the party?

JI: Yeah. Like, starting in 2016, I personally experienced, like, racial discrimination, you know, on the street. Like, for example, one night I was in, like, a nearby Target parking lot. I was in a car, and I saw a white lady. She made that Asian face - like, the eyes - to me, like, kind of, like, insulting to an Asian woman.

CHANG: Right.

JI: That's not acceptable. So I feel like, you know, a lot of Asian hate that's coming from there. Since 2016, Trump become president, and he promoted that environment. Before, it was not, like, that obvious. But after 2016, it was really obvious to the community.

CHANG: Tyler, I want to turn to you now. You're a voter in the 45th District now, which is a closely watched swing district in California. I know that you no longer work in politics full-time, but you did endorse the Republican candidate in your district, Michelle Steel. So it seems like there are still elements of the Republican platform that appeal to you. Can you talk about what those elements are?

DIEP: I believe that we should have less taxes in this country and less government involved in our daily lives. Like, a lot of my friends are small business owner, just like a lot of first-generation immigrants, where, you know, they just don't have the ability to go to college. So to make a better life for them and their family, they tend to open up a small shop, a small restaurant. And what they want and what I want is less regulations. You know, like, these days, in order to open a small company - right? - in California, you have to go through so many layer of governments. We just want to be left alone so that we can run our own noodle shop or do the thing that we want without seeing a government inspector breathing down our neck.

CHANG: Well, I am curious - which party now do you think does a better job at engaging Asian American voters or seems to be intentionally engaging Asian American voters?

JI: I don't know if it is intentional or not - right? - but we care about the results, right? So I feel like, even, like, in our district, I'm a volunteer for some, like, high school or middle school. I heard from the kids that, often, they invite, like, Republican candidates. Hardly anyone accepts the kids' invitation, but all the Democrats accept the invitation and share stories with the kids.

CHANG: Tyler, you know, many of the candidates running for congressional seats in Orange County are Asian American in this upcoming election, including both candidates in the district where you vote. Let me ask you - when it comes to cultivating Asian American candidates rather than cultivating Asian American voters, per se, do you think the Republican Party has done a better job in recent years?

DIEP: No. From my observation, after - what? - 70 years of being on the front lines, the Democratic Party and its apparatus are much more intentional in growing a young farm team of future Asian leaders than the Republican Party. I can give you many example of the infrastructure that the Democratic Party has in place in California to mentor and train young Asian American to come into civic or political life. Not only is there a party, but they have invested heavily into nonprofit group that really acts as advocacy group for all things related to a progressive agenda. Whereas, on the Republican side, if you will, there's not a lot of that.

CHANG: Can I ask - any plans to return to politics for you?

DIEP: Maybe someday. When I feel like my personal politics can appeal to whether Republican or Democratic voters, then I'll come back. But I think, right now, I see a lot of extremes on both sides. And where I fall on the political spectrum, I won't get out of any political primaries.

CHANG: Tyler Diep is a voter and former Republican politician from Orange County. And Violet Ji is a voter in Orange County as well. Thank you to both of you so much. This was such a joy to speak to both of you.

JI: Thank you.

DIEP: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.