California Democrats were unable to regain their two-thirds legislative supermajority in the state Senate and lost ground in the Assembly, at least in part due to the victories of two Republican candidates from Orange County — both women, both Asian-American.
The victories of Janet Nguyen in the 34th state Senate District and Young Kim in the 65th Assembly District over Democratic rivals could signal a shift in the Orange County political landscape – and more broadly, in the GOP’s relationship with Asian-Americans.
University of California, Riverside political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan said the victories represent a nuanced picture of an electorate that as recently as 2012 was seen as steadily moving left.
Not that there haven't been hints. A high proportion of Asian-American voters don't identify with either party, Ramakrishnan said, and some remained undecided this year until shortly before the election.
“So that suggests that this is a swing vote that is very much persuadable," Ramakrishnan said, "and just as the Asian-American vote moved toward the Democratic Party over the last two decades, we may be seeing the beginning of a trend where they are moving back closer toward the Republican Party. Maybe not to the same level they were 20 years ago, but certainly away from the peak that we saw in 2012.”
That year, a record number of Asian-American voters were credited with helping re-elect President Barack Obama, along with black and Latino voters.
Vietnamese-Americans have traditionally leaned right, but only Nguyen is of Vietnamese descent; Kim is Korean-American. The Republican party initially struggled to reach out to Asian-Americans, says Mike Madrid, a conservative strategist in Sacramento who specializes in voters of color.
But the party has stepped up its outreach strategy in recent years, with the Republican National Committee hiring staff to court Asian and Pacific Islander voters.
“We’ve turned a corner, the head scratching is over, and now they are actually doing it," Madrid said. "They are putting their money where their mouth is, literally and figuratively… they are actually doing it, and are seeing a few sprouts of success start to push through. This election was clearly a sign of that.”
Tuesday's victories for Kim and Nguyen are especially relevant since Orange County, once a white Republican stronghold, has been in political flux for years, as Latino voters had turned it increasingly Democratic.
"If you take a step back and see why the Democratic Party had gotten a supermajority in the first place, it was because of gains they had made in places like Orange County," said UC Riverside's Ramakrishnan. "Like Young Kim's district, for example. And so losing that seat ends up being critical for the Democrats."
Strategist Madrid added that in addition to outreach, changing party demographics are inevitable in a state like California — as is an increasingly diverse middle class.
"As we're undergoing this dramatic demographic transformation," Madrid said, "what we are starting to see as Latinos and specifically Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters are here longer, two or three generations, is they start take on the overall characteristics of the electorate."
This means they're more likely to be motivated by middle-class economic issues, Madrid said, and more likely to support candidates who appeal to them on these terms.