Virginia congressional candidates Barbara Comstock, a Republican, and John Foust, a Democrat, are hitting the campaign trail with the usual issues like jobs, health care and immigration. But they’re also going a step further to close the deal in a district where Asian Americans are a fast growing ethnic group.
Comstock, a state delegate, has touted her work with human trafficking legislation and attendance at a recent town hall meeting about a hate crime. Foust, a Fairfax County supervisor, says he can relate to immigrants because he too was born into a family where no one else had gone to college. At a recent event, Foust told an attendee that he recalled seeing her at Eden Center, a shopping mall in the Washington D.C. suburbs that is a frequent stop for politicians courting Asian American support.
The Asian population statewide in Virginia climbed by 68% from 2000 to 2010. Asians now make up 5% of the state’s population.
The competitive race comes as Congressman Frank Wolf is retiring and leaving an open seat. Wolf’s district – which he has represented in Congress since Ronald Reagan was first elected president – is one-third nonwhite. Asian American residents account for 11% of the population, as do Hispanics. Vietnamese,
In September, both candidates spoke at a forum put on by minority chambers of commerce held in Annandale, the nexus of Korean life in Virginia.
Each spoke for about five minutes to a crowd of about 100 people gathered in a nondescript multipurpose room at a Northern Virginia community college. The attendees, who were seated in conference room chairs and clustered around high-top tables cluttered with campaign literature, were mostly Asian. The candidates – including Foust and Comstock – were mostly white.
“For a lot of these folks who immigrated to the U.S., government was something that was not a part of their lives,” says Grace Han Wolf, a Herndon Va. town council member. Wolf says she was the first Korean American elected in Virginia. “It’s quite different here in America because government is the way you get things done. Without a vote, without a voice, you’re not able to impact the changes that can impact your community. And finally, those communities are realizing that connection.”
When Foust, the Democrat took the stage, a connection is what he was going for.
“I am very very proud of the fact that I have been endorsed by every elected [Asian American and Pacific Islander] official in Northern Virginia,” he said, singling each out by name.
Later, after speaking with a slew of reporters, Foust posed outside the event room for a photo with the officials that had endorsed him.
Democrats like Foust see Wolf’s retirement in this Virginia district as an opportunity to seize a Republican House seat as they face a challenging electoral map. But moreso, it’s a good test-case for how both parties are adapting to the changing demographics of a country that is rapidly becoming more diverse.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also been shifting dramatically toward the Democratic party for more than a decade. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush won 55 percent of the Asian vote. But in the two decades that followed, Republicans have loosened their hold. In 2008, President Obama won 62% of the Asian vote. Four years later, he won 73%.
But Republicans don’t believe that’s a foregone conclusion. In this Virginia district and in others across the country, Republican candidates are working to chip away at those numbers as they work to broaden their audience and appeal to minorities and younger voters.
Sang Yi, the president of Korean American Republican Party of Virginia, says Asians don’t want to be pigeon-holed, or treated like candidates are stressing “Asian issues” to win their vote. He made an analogy to the way candidates court female voters.
“Women care about more than just reproductive health issues,” he says. “They care about taxes, they care about the economy, they care about national security, they care about everything that everybody else cares about – and so does the Asian community.”
When Comstock took the stage in Annandale, she hit on traditional Republican rallying points — repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes, a strong national defense.
But she was also looking to make a personal connection, telling the story of a Vietnamese family she met.
“They only had 45 cents in their pocket. They started washing dishes and they started going to night school and to community college and then getting degrees and then starting their own business,” she explained. “You all here know somebody like that because that’s the story of Northern Virginia and the 10th District.”
The candidates wanted to make a connection – but it didn’t work for everyone.
Genie Nguyen, the president of Voice of Vietnamese Americans sat through the speeches for each candidate – even the ones who weren’t campaigning in her district. She works with voter outreach and advocacy in her community. And yet, she still hasn’t decided who she’ll vote for.
Like most voters, she cares about jobs, the economy and soaring student loan debt. But she says she thinks the outreach she’s heard from candidates has just scratched the surface.
“They’re making very surface appearance to the community events. They need to actually invest in the community,” she says. “They need to pay for advertisements in printed media in Vietnamese, in Taiwanese, in Tagalog.”
Nguyen says the candidates need to spend more time studying her issues. And she’ll spend more time studying them.
“I’m going to wait and study more about each candidate,” she says. “I do hope that in the next few weeks, more actions from the candidates will reach out to the community – especially the Asian-American community and the Vietnamese community – in a meaningful way. And more importantly, I hope whoever wins will keep their promise.”
Candidates will also have to learn how to fine tune their message. What works for older Asians, like Nguyen, might not be as effective for younger Asians, Grace Han Wolf explains.
“They have one foot in both cultures. Both the ethnic culture as well as the American culture and they understand the importance of voting,” she says. “It’s something that you get in your AP U.S. History class in high school. So you see a lot of those kids who are old enough to be leaders in the community urging the elders and the new immigrants this is important, this is your job and your right and your duty as an American.”
Nearly half of Asian American registered voters in a recent survey said they did not identify as Republicans or Democrats. And roughly one-third said they still don’t know who they’ll vote for next month.
For candidates in competitive districts around the country, that’s what you call an opportunity.