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A California toss-up seat could help determine control of the House. Asian Americans could steer the vote.

A California toss-up seat could help determine control of the House. Asian Americans could steer the vote.

A district in Orange County, California, is set to be one of the most competitive national races in the fight to control the House of Representatives. But the November matchup between Democrat Dave Min and Republican Scott Baugh is notable for another reason: It’s one of the few toss-up seats over which Asian American voters hold an outsize influence.

​​California’s 47th Congressional District, where Asian American and Pacific Islanders make up a quarter of the population, has repeatedly flipped from Democrats to Republicans over the past decade. With the electorate nearly evenly divided between both parties, candidates are actively courting the AAPI population ahead of November’s election.   

The coastal Orange County district, currently represented by Democrat Katie Porter, was once a GOP bastion home to affluent, suburban white voters. In Irvine, by far the largest and most Democratic city in the district, Asians now make up 40% of the population. Min, a law professor and state senator, said that his background as a Korean American and track record fighting for Asian American issues makes him uniquely positioned to represent the community.

“We don’t have much representation in the halls of political power,” Min told NBC News. “Those of us who are Asian American end up representing not just our own districts but Asian Americans across the entire region, maybe across the entire U.S.”

Orange County, a place Ronald Reagan once described as “where the good Republicans go before they die,” has become a political battleground due to a surge in Asian and Latino immigrants over the past two decades. Four of the county’s six congressional races, including Min’s, are ranked among the most competitive in the country, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report. A UC Irvine poll from January found that wealthier Asian American and Latino residents, who comprise a majority of independent voters, could play a key role in the general election. 

Many Asian Americans in the 47th District are affluent, highly educated and more issue-driven than party-driven, experts say. In Irvine, where average home prices exceed $1 million, the voting population is split evenly between Democrats, Republicans and those with no party preference, or NPP.

“I would just say that everyone is a moderate,” said Susan Lew, president of ​Asian Americans in Action, a civic engagement nonprofit based in Orange County. “Candidates are really fighting over the NPPs.”

In Orange County, Asian American candidates of both parties have upset incumbents in local and congressional elections, which experts say indicates the community’s desire for greater political representation. In 2020, Republicans Michelle Steel and Young Kim flipped two seats in the House, becoming the first Korean American women elected to Congress. Both were re-elected two years later. 

Tammy Kim, an Irvine council member and managing director of Korean American Center, said the Republican Party has historically done better in building a pipeline and training candidates in Orange County. “On candidate work a lot of people ignored Orange County because they think it’s all Republican,” she said. “You’re seeing a crossover from red to purple to blue, and now it’s getting a lot more attention.”

“On the ground, we’re finding that Asian Americans are really socially progressive — they’re pro-choice, pro-health care, pro-low-wage workers — but fiscally moderate or conservative,” Kim said. She said that some of the greatest needs of Asian American constituents include access to health care for older adults, affordable housing, support for small businesses and mental health resources — issues that Kim said Min has advocated for during his time in the state Legislature.  

As a state senator, Min wrote and supported legislation denouncing anti-Asian hate. During his first year in office, the Department of Motor Vehicles announced a cost-cutting measure to eliminate 25 languages from the written driver’s test, almost all of which were Asian languages. Min called Gov. Gavin Newsom and wrote a news release about the detrimental impact the policy would have on Asian American communities. Within 24 hours, he said, Newsom reversed the decision.

“This issue caught my attention because I’m just one of a handful of Asian legislators in the state,” Min said. “There are a lot of other AAPI issues across language access where I’ve had to be active because if I don’t act, who’s going to do that on our behalf?” 

Min said he wants to continue promoting language access in the federal government, especially related to health care. Though he’s made tremendous inroads with Asian American leaders and voters, the November election will likely be a nail-biter, and the Republican Party of Orange County has been accused in the past of deploying racist attack ads against Asian candidates. 

One blemish on Min’s record is a drunk-driving arrest last year, for which he was sentenced to three years of informal probation. The incident was subjected to relentless attacks in his primary race against Joanna Weiss. Min has called the arrest “the mistake of his life” and has said that it “will never happen again.” 

Voter turnout in the Asian American community, though historically been low, has soared in recent presidential elections. Min said his outreach strategy heading into the race is meeting Asian American voters where they are, whether that’s promoting his policies in ethnic media or engaging people in conversation in churches and community centers.

One reason Democrats have had mixed success engaging Asian American voters in the 47th District, Min said, is that the party has veered too far left on issues like public safety and job creation. Many Asian American entrepreneurs in his district, he said, have a “love-hate relationship” with Democratic politicians who they consider hostile to small businesses. “I’m seen as pro-business and pro-police,” Min said. “I hope to cut against the way in which other Democrats are seen.”

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