Two years ago Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, seemed like a strong candidate for California governor. She had business experience, resources, and a changing political climate. But despite putting $144 million of her own money into the campaign, she lost to Jerry Brown by 41 percent to 54 percent.
The reason? Shawn Steel, the Republican National Committeeman from California, believes part of her mistake was in where she spent her money. Of the $160 million spent, not a cent of it went to reaching out to Asian voters, who make up 12 percent of California’s electorate—no ads in Asian newspapers, TV stations, or radio programs.
“She spent millions just on staff. They were smart people who didn’t have a clue … how demographics have changed to our favor,” said Steel, referring to similarities between Asian values and the Republican platform. “She relied on an English-only campaign.”
That forgotten demographic could also make the difference between Republicans winning or losing this year’s presidential election, some analysts say. Asian-Americans have surpassed Hispanics as the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, a third of them are undecided in the upcoming election, and they are concentrated in key battleground states like Nevada, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida.
But for either campaign to benefit from these voters, they first need to get Asian-Americans to the polls. In 2008, Asian-Americans were the least likely ethnic group to vote: Only 47 percent of Asian-Americans voted in the election compared to 50 percent of Hispanics, 65 percent of African-Americans, and 66 percent of Caucasians.
Part of the reason is that Asian-Americans are the most recent immigrant group. Ray Seto, the English pastor of Chinese Christian Church of Virginia, sees it in his own family. While he plans on voting this election, he doubts that his first-generation father will: “They think it’s an American thing, they still associate with the home country where they came from—Vietnam, China,” Seto said. “They would say this is a foreign land and so why vote?”
Compared to the attention politicians give to other ethnic groups, it is no wonder Asian voters often feel neglected. Seto said he hasn’t seen any outreach to Asian-Americans from either campaign in Northern Virginia where he lives, even though Virginia is 6 percent Asian. In a recent Asian-American presidential town hall in Fairfax, director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, Christine Chen, was disappointed to find that neither candidate sent high-level surrogates.
“Traditionally, there haven’t been resources poured into Asian-Americans to get them registered,” Chen said. Many areas didn’t have access to traditional tools like voter files or ballots in Asian languages since Asians had made up such a small percentage of the population.
But this election year shows efforts on both sides to reach out, albeit slowly. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have created Asian-American coalitions to contact the Asian-American community through phone banks, door knocking, advertising in Asian media outlets, and setting up tables outside of Asian grocery stores.
Republicans face a greater hurdle in that 63 percent of the Asian-Americans who did vote in 2008 voted for President Obama. Steel, who is married to Michelle Park Steel, the vice chair of the California Board of Equalization and a Korean-American, believes this is because the Republican Party had “done nothing for Asian-Americans.”
“The right has no Asian consciousness like there is on the left,” Steel said. “Most political Asian groups are left of center, but it certainly is not reflective of all Asians or their values.”
Crucial to winning the Asian vote is building relationships with the voters on issues they are concerned about, said Samuel Han, the district director for Republican Assemblyman Donald Wagner in Orange County, Calif. The 24-year-old represents a new generation of Asian-Americans who are involved in the political process and who reach out to the Asian-American community through personal networks and churches.
“Asian-Americans are not partisan,” Han said. “We may register as Democrats, but a lot of our positions are very Republican. Asian-Americans are more likely to vote on key issues, and that is the way we engage with Asian-Americans.”
A high percentage of Asian-Americans are small business owners, and many want lower taxes and less government regulation. Many also want to see change in the education system so that their children can have better futures. Han said Asian-American voters—especially those in the numerous Asian churches around the country—are also conservative on social issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion.
“Many pastors don’t know the political system, but when it came down to Prop 8 or abortion issues, they had people holding pickets, campaigning,” Han said, referring to the California referendum declaring marriage between a man and a woman. “It was a weird thing, politicians didn’t know where they were coming from.”
The ease of crossing party lines was apparent in Virginia with the Asian-American support for Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell just one year after Asian-Americans overwhelmingly voted for Obama. McDonnell captured 60 percent of Asian-American votes by targeting the Asian-American community directly: meeting with Asian-language media, and targeting Chinese schools, Korean churches, and Vietnamese community elders.
Steel believes Republicans should engage in more of this type of campaigning. “Numbers speak for themselves, any representative that wants to get elected must look hard at the Asian-American community,” Steel said. “The best move Republicans can make is to consciously open as many doors to Asians as possible as quickly as possible.”
More than party affiliation, Asian-Americans look to elect one of their own. So Republican Matthew Lin, an orthopedic surgeon who founded and operated seven hospitals in the Democratic stronghold of San Gabriel Valley, could become the first Republican assemblyman for the area in over 40 years.
Through connections he’s made in the past 34 years in the medical field and as the first Asian-American city council member and mayor of San Marino, Lin is building a grassroots movement that has surprised even Republicans in Sacramento.
Lin’s opponent is Democrat Ed Chau, who is backed by Democrats Mike Eng, the current assemblyman of District 49, and his wife Congresswoman Judy Chu. This would typically make Chau an obvious winner, but now many are looking at a possible upset.
“I know the pulse of the community,” Lin said. “My opponents have no clue.”
Many of the first-generation Asian-Americans in District 49—the only Asian-majority district in the nation—can relate to Lin’s story. He grew up in a poor village in Taiwan, worked hard to attend medical school, then moved to the United States with $300 sewn into his pocket. After residency at Johns Hopkins, he moved to San Gabriel with his wife 34 years ago and started his own office. He went on to own and operate seven hospitals in the area. After eight years on the San Marino city council, Lin went on medical mission trips in South America, Asia, and Africa.
The grandfather of two decided to run for the Assembly after helping at a local food center and meeting an Iraq war veteran who had been laid off from his IT job and had lost his apartment. “I told my wife, ‘It’s time for me to do something to pay back to this community,’” Lin said.
Lin says he’ll bring his medical experiences to the political realm: While physicians are called to “do no harm” to their patients, he wants to make sure that any new law doesn’t harm businesses. He plans to lower the expenses in California that drive businesses out of the state—in 2011, 254 companies left the Golden State to avoid high property and business taxes.
He says most politicians in the area don’t represent the interests of Asian-Americans. Specifically, he points to the Asian churches that dot the San Gabriel Valley landscape: “[Asian-American Christians] are not represented in this area, many lawmakers all their foundational beliefs are totally against most of the people in this district, their ideas and wishes.”
Shawn Steel, Republican National Committeeman from California, believes Lin’s race is one to watch to see the future of the Republican Party: “In urban areas in California, if [Lin] is the way, he proves that Asians are the best, most important force for Republicans in California.” —A.L.