- Associated Press - Monday, October 11, 2010

SANTA ANA, Calif. | The changing face of one of Southern California’s wealthiest counties helped Democrat Loretta Sanchez win an upset election to Congress 14 years ago, as Latinos arrived as a political force. Now, a rising tide of Vietnamese political clout has her fighting to hang onto her seat.

To the surprise of many voters in California’s gritty, urban 47th District - which shares little with the affluent beachfront communities that give Orange County its fame - it was Ms. Sanchez herself who recently injected the thorny issue of race into the campaign. Speaking on the Spanish-language network Univision, she warned that “the Vietnamese and Republicans” were trying “to take this seat from us … and give it to this Van Tran who is very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic” - words she later conceded were poorly chosen.

Vietnamese-American state Assemblyman Van Tran, Ms. Sanchez’s first serious challenger since she took office, said he was offended by the remarks and called them a “racial rampage” against Vietnamese-Americans, who came to Southern California as refugees 35 years ago and built a bustling commercial hub in the heart of Orange County.

“You’re seeing two emerging communities … seeing themselves not as potential allies in these kinds of head-to-head races but as foes in a zero-sum game, and that becomes dangerous,” said James S. Lai, a political science professor at Santa Clara University.

There is no other district with candidates hailing from two sizable ethnic communities in such a potentially close race, according to Democrat and Republican political watchers. Many contests pit a white against a minority candidate. A handful - such as Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District - feature a race between two minority contenders, but the rival candidates rarely have support in two large ethnic constituencies.

For many years, Orange County was seen as a wealthy white suburb of Los Angeles. But the county - home to Disneyland - is far more diverse now thanks to growing Latino and Asian-American communities, and non-Hispanic whites make up less than half of the population.

The district - which includes Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Fullerton - is no stranger to ethnic controversy. In 1996, Ms. Sanchez’s conservative predecessor, Bob Dornan, known as “B-1 Bob” for his support of military programs and his outsized personality, claimed many who cast a ballot for his opponent were ineligible to vote. A decade later, the Republican candidate for Ms. Sanchez’s seat, Tan Nguyen, sent a Spanish-language mailer to Latino Democrats warning them immigrants could not vote.

Political experts said Ms. Sanchez’s recent remarks may have been a calculated risk to drive Latinos to the polls in November.

While the majority of the district is Hispanic and Democratic, Latinos have a lower turnout rate than Vietnamese-Americans, and Democratic candidates likely will be hurt this year by the anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping a nation wracked by the recession.

Ms. Sanchez, who will have former President Bill Clinton stump for her later this month, still has the advantage but acknowledges she is just two or three percentage points ahead of Mr. Tran in a district where more than two-thirds of residents are Latino and 15 percent are Asian.

About 47 percent of the district’s voters are Democrats and 31 percent are Republicans.

“I don’t know if they are going to come out to vote,” Ms. Sanchez said of Latinos and Democrats. “And if they don’t come out to vote, we won’t win.”

The big question is whether Vietnamese-Americans who have long cast a ballot for Ms. Sanchez - even though many are Republicans - will desert her in November.

Ms. Sanchez has championed key issues for the Vietnamese community, such as denouncing Vietnam’s record of religious persecution. But political scientists say voters tend to pick candidates from their own ethnic background.

Mr. Tran was the first Vietnamese-American elected to a state legislature in 2004 and has a deep base of support in the community. He has helped groom dozens of Vietnamese-Americans to run for local offices in Orange County.

Puffing on a Marlboro outside his Vietnamese restaurant in Santa Ana, Duke Nguyen said he supports Mr. Tran because he is a Republican and also because he is Vietnamese and can speak for the community.

“We are proud to have another Vietnamese in Congress,” the 54-year old said.

But the vote is not only up to the Vietnamese-American electorate. Experts say Latinos could determine the outcome of the race if they don’t show up to vote. Ms. Sanchez also could see some votes siphoned off by Latina candidate Cecilia Iglesias, who is running as an independent.

Ms. Sanchez and Mr. Tran are at odds over who will better represent immigrants in a district where nearly half of residents are foreign-born and more than three-quarters speak a language other than English.

Ms. Sanchez, born in California to Mexican immigrant parents, supports a plan to overhaul the country’s immigration system. Mr. Tran said he represents immigrants through his personal experience as a refugee.

“We’re not conceding any parts of the constituency,” Mr. Tran said.

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