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Republicans on mission to win over Asian-American voters

Sharon Day, co-chair of the Republican National Committee, addresses Asian-American Republicans at the Grace Ministries church in Fullerton.
Sharon Day, co-chair of the Republican National Committee, addresses Asian-American Republicans at the Grace Ministries church in Fullerton.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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The Grace Ministries complex, spread over 26 acres in Fullerton, is where some 6,000 Korean-Americans worship.

But on a recent weekday, the turnout was much smaller.  Just 70 people gathered in the church's fellowship hall as Sharon Day, co-chair of the Republican National Committee, made a passionate pitch.

“We’re committed to tell you why the Republican party is the Asian party — why that’s where you should be,” Day said.

Surveys show Asian-Americans have made the biggest pivot away from the Republican party of any ethnic group in recent years. And now the GOP is doing its best to woo them back.

The RNC has hired three California-based staffers to reach out to Asian-American voters and support Asian-Americans candidates. Two other staffers in Washington work solely on Asian-American issues.

Day said RNC officials, recognizing that Asian-Americans are not a monolithic population, are cultivating relationships with different ethnic groups. Hours before the Korean megachurch event, Day met with a small group of Vietnamese-American leaders from Garden Grove and Westminster.

Asian-Americans shift from GOP

The Republican Party acknowledges it has a lot of catching up to do with all minority groups, including African-Americans and Latinos

But the Asian-American swing to the Democrats' side has been particularly dramatic: Nearly three out of four Asian-American voters supported President Obama in 2012.

“By gosh, we’re going to earn your vote,” Day told the audience in the fellowship hall of Grace Ministries. "It’s time that we stood with you. It’s time we reached out to you."

As the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, Asian-Americans are a highly-coveted voting bloc that could make the difference in close races.

Up until the 1990s, Asian-Americans leaned Republican, with the party pulling in about two-thirds of the Asian-American vote, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside.   

But a big political shift began during the Clinton administration, said Ramakrishan, who directs the National Asian American Survey.

“The Clintons had done a lot of outreach," Ramakrishnan said. "They promoted a lot of people into positions, and inspired people to run for office.”

Another turning point was September 11.

“The post 9/11 racial profiling got a lot of Asian-Americans to turn away from the Republican Party,” Ramakrishnan said.

Ramakrishnan noted around this time, anti-immigrant rhetoric increased. Complaints may have been directed at Latino immigrants crossing the border illegally, but he said Asians — who have the highest percentage of foreign-born residents — were made to feel uncomfortable.   

“Those voices were loud enough for Asian-Americans to feel less at home,” Ramakrishnan said.

Ramakrishnan's research shows that in the interim, a majority of Asian-Americans have come to support the social safety net promoted by Democrats, with laws such as the Affordable Care Act.

Other academics have also posited that Asian-Americans see Democrats as more progressive about science and technology, while Republicans are viewed as stuck in time.

Showing up when and where it matters

Rather than swooping into town months before an election, the RNC's strategy is to develop a long-standing presence where Asian-Americans live, work and worship.

Sam Han welcomed the RNC visit to Grace Ministries, where he is a youth pastor.

“[Asian-Americans] need to really get more involved and know what’s going on out there,” Han said.

At the same time, he said it was a smart move for the RNC to hold the event at his church.  Churches such as Grace Ministries have been keeping their members plugged in since the 1980s, when a large of wave of Koreans emigrated to the U.S.

“It’s such a taste of home,” Han said. “You had a lot of Korean-Americans coming together who were struggling with the language barrier, with food, and they wanted to get together and really kind of encourage one other."

Han, who is 25 and whose father is the church’s senior pastor, said Republican values align with the church’s positions against same-sex marriage and abortion. That’s what drew him to the party first.  
“And then as I got to know more about the party, I realized I’m not just a social conservative, I’m a fiscal conservative," Han said.

Republican values equals Asian-American values?

Republicans say their priorities resonate with many Asian-American conservatives: lower taxes, quality education, public safety.

Young Kim of Fullerton, who was at the RNC event as a first-time candidate for state assembly, said the party message of “individual responsibility” held particular appeal to her as an immigrant.

“I became a Republican because — just like all immigrant families do — I watched my parents struggle,” Kim said.

Because of her family background, Kim is more open to immigration reform than some of her Republican colleagues. 

She supports offering permanent legal status to some of the people in the U.S. illegally, such as the young adults brought here as children. 

“Let's help give them some sort of status to stay here so they're not living in fear every single day,” Kim said.

Kim, a long-time aide to Republican Congressman Ed Royce of Fullerton, is one of four Asian-American women in Orange County running for county or state office as Republicans.

She said getting elected will go a long way toward showing other Asian-Americans that they can belong to the Republican party, too.