With less than four months to go before Election Day, Orange County Republicans in California are confident that at least two of the four Asian-American GOP women running in high-profile local and state races will emerge victorious, helping to change the face of the party overnight.
The push to elect the Asian-American women is part of Republican efforts to tap into Democrat-style identity politics to try to find a way to stop — or even reverse — its eroding support among minority voters.
“California is a precursor of the dynamic change, demographicswise, in America,” said Shawn Steel, a member of the Republican National Committee from California whose wife, Michelle, is one of the candidates. “So this is a harbinger. This is a call in the dark night saying, ‘Look, guys, let’s change. We have to adapt or die.’”
In the state that controls the single biggest pot of electoral votes, Wayne Lindholm, president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, which has served as a rich source of funds for Republicans over the years and whose members have included Richard Nixon and John Wayne, summed up the party’s challenge more bluntly: “We need to break the image of being just old, white guys.”
The candidates cleared the first hurdle in the primary last month.
Michelle Steel, a Korean-American, came out as the top vote-getter in a race for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and Ling-Ling Chang, a Chinese-American, came out as the top vote-getter in the race for a state Assembly seat — giving each a boost of momentum heading into the November elections, where Republicans expect them to win.
Meanwhile, Young Kim, a Korean-American and former staffer for Rep. Edward R. Royce, moved forward in the race for a state Assembly seat, and Janet Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American and Orange County supervisor, advanced in her race for the state Senate, which is being billed as one of the hottest statehouse races in California this year.
“They went through the first crucible and outperformed expectations everywhere,” said Mr. Steel. “If we get all four elected, it is a dramatic shift overnight, and of real power. It would definitely change the look of the Republican Party.”
California used to be Republican territory, producing Nixon, Ronald Reagan and other GOP stalwarts up through the late 1980s, when dramatic demographic trends began to eat away at the conservative voter base.
That has been the case in Orange County. Louis DeSipio, a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of California, Irvine, said Nixon wouldn’t recognize his former stomping grounds.
In 1980, the state’s population was 23.6 million, 67 percent of which was white, 19 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 7 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Fast-forward to today, and of the state’s 38.3 million people, 39 percent are white, 38 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian and about 7 percent black.
That is a problem for a party that has won elections primarily on the backs of white voters. The result: Democrats control the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats and large majorities in both houses of the state Legislature. George H.W. Bush, in 1988, was the last Republican to carry the Golden State in a presidential election.
“The white electorate on which [Republicans] have relied for many years is growing much more slowly than the nonwhite electorate,” Mr. DeSipio said.
Relying on white voters isn’t working for the Republican Party nationally, either.
Its 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, won 59 percent of the white vote, a higher percentage than Ronald Reagan did in 1980 when he defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter. But most minority voters roundly rejected Mr. Romney, and that cost him the White House.
President Obama won the votes of 73 percent of Asians and 71 percent of Hispanics nationally, and 72 percent of the Hispanic vote and 79 percent of the Asian vote in California.
Mr. Romney’s loss, in a race that many strategists felt he should win, sent Republican leaders scrambling for answers.
In an election postmortem, the Republican National Committee found that trouble winning minority votes was a key stumbling block.
Mr. Steel, a former head of the California Republican Party, is among those making the case that the GOP must field and, more important, elect minority candidates.
“If the party is to be robust and be a player in California, they are going to have to make some absolutely fundamental changes in their marketing approach,” Mr. Steel said. “The dynamic, fast-growing Asian population needs to be brought in wholesale, and the best way to do that is have a whole lot of Asian-Americans run for local and state offices who are Republican Asians.”
Mr. Steel said the party also must invest more into minority outreach.
He points to a project he spearheaded in 2012 when he raised $50,000 as part of an outreach effort in Nevada that included a bilingual phone bank and mailers in four Asian languages promoting Mr. Romney. Exit polls suggested that the limited investment paid off: Mr. Romney pulled in 47 percent of Nevada’s Asian and Pacific-American vote, compared with 26 percent nationwide.
Some analysts warn that the Republican foray into identity politics can go only so far. They say the chief problems are the party’s stances on issues that are key to winning minority votes.
For Hispanic voters, immigration is a threshold issue.
“The question is going to be, ‘Are you in favor of legalization?’” said Roberto Suro, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who previously served as director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “If the answer is, ‘Under no circumstances,’ this is going to be hard.”
Jack M. Guerrero, a Cudahy City Council member who serves as mayor and ran for the California Assembly in 2012, said Republicans need to reformulate their message to argue that they are fighting for the little guy and need to reassure people that the party does not want to scrap social safety-net programs, but rather make them more efficient and accountable.
But, he said, the “elephant in the room” for Hispanic voters is immigration.
Mr. Guerrero, who was elected to the City Council last year and is the son of Mexican immigrants, said his party needs to adopt a more respectful tone toward immigrants and reject the stances of high-profile Republicans such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa, whom Hispanics see as anti-immigrant.
“Those of us that are a lot more sensible need to stand up to that,” Mr. Guerrero said.
He also said the party needs to embrace legalization for at least some illegal immigrants, including a pathway to citizenship “even if it will take you 15 years.”
“If we present a proposition like that, we can get Latinos onboard,” he said. “If we don’t get past that option, then it is all on the messenger eventually. It is someone like me. We will survive only by propping up Republican exceptionals out there [who are] able to convince constituents that, except for [immigration], they are Republicans.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who is backing Mrs. Steel and some of the other minority candidates, made it clear that getting rank-and-file Republicans to embrace legalization is difficult.
“I will never vote to legalize the status of people who come here illegally,” Mr. Rohrabacher said at a campaign stop, with Mrs. Steel at his side. “It is an insult to immigrants who came in legally, like Michelle.”
Pete Wilson’s legacy
The Republican Party’s immigration problem in California traces back to the 1990s, when Gov. Pete Wilson led an initiative, passed by voters, that cracked down on illegal immigrants’ use of many state social services. The law was invalidated by a court, and a subsequent Democratic governor halted appeals, leaving the ruling in place.
The political damage came quickly and went beyond Hispanics, said Charles Kim of Fullerton, whose wife, Young Kim, easily won the June 3 Republican primary in the 65th legislative district. The initiative, known as Proposition 187, turned off Asian voters as well, he said.
“That is the turning point for when they started losing interest in the Republican Party,” Mr. Kim said. “Democrats, they hug you first. I disagree with them, but they welcome me. I agree with Republicans, but they don’t welcome me. That is the feeling we have.”
The biography on the “About Young Kim” page of his wife’s campaign website makes no mention of her party affiliation.
The immigration experience
Mrs. Steel hasn’t shied away from her immigrant experience when she talks with voters.
She was born in South Korea, and her family moved to Japan, where her father served as a diplomat. After her father died, Mrs. Steel’s mother packed up her three daughters and moved to the United States, where she learned her third language, English.
Speaking with a thick accent, which forces some people to lean forward and listen more intently, Mrs. Steel jokes about how she figured it was an American dating tradition to bring along a best friend after Mr. Rohrabacher, now a congressman, tagged along with her husband on their first outing.
She said her desire to run for public office was fueled by the way her mother was treated by the state tax agency, the California Board of Equalization, after she opened a clothing store in Los Angeles.
“She got harassed and abused by tax agency,” Mrs. Steel said. “So I had a grudge against them. She paid taxes that she didn’t owe, plus collecting interest on top of it.”
Mrs. Steel, who graduated from Pepperdine University and received an MBA from the University of Southern California, won one of the five seats on the same tax board in 2006, making her one of the senior ranking Republican officials in the state government.
In the primary, she captured 47 percent of the vote — just short of the 50 percent needed to capture the supervisor’s seat outright.
Mrs. Steel now faces state Assemblyman Allan Mansoor in a November runoff. Mr. Mansoor, also a Republican, collected 24 percent of the primary vote.
Mrs. Nguyen, meanwhile, said her family benefited from social welfare programs after emigrating from Vietnam. She said that is an experience more Republicans need to understand.
“When people start saying things like those on welfare are ‘milking the system,’ well, guess what? That is offensive to me, even though I am not on welfare. That system helped me get to where I am today,” Ms. Nguyen said.
“However, we are rebuilding the party, and we are making sure that we are reaching out,” she said. “There are now individuals like myself who are more outspoken about issues and also are talking to Republican leaders about these issues and how we deal with it.”
Republicans hope Mrs. Nguyen, who won her primary and will face off against former Assemblyman Jose Solorio, a Democrat, in one of the state’s most closely watched races, can help them tap into the Vietnamese voting bloc. They estimate there are 40,000 unregistered Vietnamese in that Senate district, and they want to get at least 10,000 of them registered and turned out to vote.
The thinking is simple: If they can register Vietnamese voters, even if they sign up as Democrats or decline to pick a party, the new voters are likely to back the Vietnamese candidate.
“This is an old tactic,” Mr. Steel said. “It used to be the Italians. It used to be the Irish. It is a tribalistic thing. It is very effective, and so that is kind of an early 20th-century phenomena. You go to your tribe, you go to your community, they help you and then you prosper.”