GOP starts a tough struggle to win back Asian American voters
RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. — Not long ago, the Republican National Committee did something out of the ordinary: The party issued a formal statement marking Diwali, an important Hindu holiday.
“Diwali and the lighting of the Diya celebrate the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance,” read the salutation from GOP headquarters in Washington, which bid good tidings to “our Hindu, Jain and Sikh friends” and ended with the traditional greeting “Saal Mubarak!”
It was a small step toward addressing a big concern.
After years of divided loyalties, Asian American voters have swung heavily behind the Democratic Party and its candidates, posing a serious threat to Republicans whose political base — older, whiter, more conservative — is shrinking by the day. (Although referred to as the Asian American community, “communities” might be a better word to reflect the diversity of groups tracing their roots from the Indian subcontinent to the Far East.)
The problem is every bit as acute as the GOP’s widely chronicled difficulties with Latino voters. Though fewer in number, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population and a rapidly expanding part of the electorate, nationally and in battleground states such as Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
On paper, at least, Asian Americans would seem highly receptive to the Republican Party and its philosophy of low taxes, small government and bootstrap initiative. On average, Asian Americans — with roots in China, India, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and numerous other countries — are wealthier and better educated than the general population and have a long tradition of entrepreneurship. “They should be coming to our party en masse,” said Shawn Steel, a former California GOP chairman, who has worked for years to expand political support among minority voters.
But Asian Americans have shifted dramatically away from the Republican Party over the last two decades — more so than any other voting group. In 1992, Republican George H.W. Bush won 55% of the Asian American vote against Democrat Bill Clinton. Last year, President Obama won 73% against Republican Mitt Romney, a better showing than the president’s 71% support among Latinos, according to exit polls.
Asian Americans also expanded their ranks in Congress, electing their first representatives from Illinois and New York and sending the Senate its first Asian American woman, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
When a South Korean diplomat came calling recently on Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, the stop in this Sacramento suburb was a gesture of friendship, a lobbying effort and a reflection of the new reality in American politics.
Bera, 48, of Elk Grove, beat longtime GOP Rep. Dan Lungren in his second try, becoming only the third Indian American congressman in history. He was helped immensely by campaign contributions from Asian Americans across the country and a district, created after the 2010 census, with a larger minority population.
The son of Indian immigrants, Bera followed a classic upwardly mobile path, becoming a physician and associate dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine before entering politics.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” he said of first-generation Asian Americans, who increasingly fill the ranks of the nation’s doctors, engineers, scientists and high-tech executives. On the desk of his district office, which bore the seal of Congress, sat a pair of lavishly photographed books on India. “The next step is giving back to the country, sitting at the table, adding to the diversity of this country — and that’s public service,” Bera said.
The shift in Asian American political sentiments started during the Clinton years and owes much to the prosperity of his two terms as president, which enhanced the appeal of a Democratic Party that, from the civil rights movement on, had always seemed more welcoming to minorities.
Hastening the trend has been the rightward turn of the Republican Party.
Opinion surveys have found Asian Americans more willing than white voters to support tax hikes to reduce the federal deficit, more supportive of a large, activist government, friendlier toward immigrants in the country illegally and more favorably disposed to Obamacare than voters overall. All those positions clash with today’s prevailing GOP sentiment.
The harsh Republican tone on immigration, directed mainly at people crossing illegally from Mexico, has been especially damaging.
“They can have that brown face in mind, wading across the Rio Grande River, but guess who else is hearing that?” said Garry South, a veteran Democratic strategist who has done extensive work training Asian American political candidates.
In a lengthy postmortem after Romney’s defeat, the national Republican Party offered a single policy prescription: a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, addressing law enforcement concerns as well as the question of citizenship for those living in the country illegally.
But immigration legislation has stalled in the GOP-run House, blocked by party hard-liners, and appears dead for the year, and possibly until after the 2014 midterm election.
Apart from observing occasions like Diwali, the national party has taken other modest steps, hiring a field director and 10 staffers to work on Asian American outreach and assigning a full-time spokesman to work with media serving the community. The goal, said the spokesman, Jason Chung, is to “learn about these communities [and] communicate our positions and principles to them. But more important is listening to them and seeing what their needs are.”
The positive news for Republicans, and a cautionary note for Democrats, is that Asian Americans tend to be less fixed in their political loyalties than other voters. “This is a group that shifted pretty quickly in the last 20 years,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political science professor and director of the National Asian American Survey. “There’s nothing to say they won’t shift back again, given the right circumstances.”
Outside Sacramento, Bera is fighting to preserve the toehold Democrats gained in one of the country’s most competitive congressional districts.
Three Republicans are vying for the chance to face him in 2014, although none starts with any particular appeal to Asian American voters. Their positions — repeal of Obama’s healthcare law, calls for lower taxes and less regulation, an emphasis on border security — are all standard party orthodoxy.
Democrats, however, hold just a slender lead in voter registration, and Bera will have to work hard in an off year to turn out minority voters — including the 14% in the district who are Asian American — without the benefit of Obama atop the ticket.
Bera has already tapped Obama’s national fundraising base to collect more than $1 million and stayed visible in Asian American media, not just in the United States but overseas, where his membership in the new congressional Sikh caucus was duly noted in the Indian press.
As a Korean news photographer snapped away during last month’s diplomatic visit, Bera presented the counsel general with a certificate commemorating 60 years of U.S.-South Korean friendship. Bera told him he hoped to visit South Korea soon.
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