Democrats’ Fate Lies In The Nation’s Political Battlefield: Orange County

Orange County is at the center of the political universe again, the battleground where upward of $35 million — or about 10 times what’s typically spent on Bay Area House campaigns — will shower each of two key races that will help determine whether Democrats keep control of Congress.

But a lot has changed since 2020, when Republican Reps. Michelle Steel and Young Kim made history by being the first GOP Korean American women to ever serve in Congress. Or 2018, when Democrats flipped four GOP seats here to help take the House. Now, Steel’s race is rated a “toss-up,” while Kim is seen as having a slightly better chance of holding her seat.

For starters, both must introduce themselves to a new crop of voters after California’s redistricting commission redrew the state’s political boundaries. Plus, a number of outside factors could reshape their races, from abortion to Donald Trump to COVID to a battle to win over Asian voters that is among the most intense — and complex — in the country.

In Steel’s race, much of that struggle will be fought in Little Saigon, a hub of more than 200,000 Vietnamese residents that stretches over parts of Orange County, about 10 miles southwest of Anaheim. It’s one of the largest such enclaves in the country.

Instead of running in the more conservative, coastal district where she won in 2020, Steel is now running in the 45th Congressional District, where Democrats have a 5-point registration advantage.

But Steel’s campaign is confident, largely because Little Saigon boosts her district’s Asian American slice of the electorate to 35%. Vietnamese voters were an integral part of the coalition that helped carry Steel to victory in 2020 over incumbent Democrat Harley Rouda, who is white, said Fred Whitaker, chair of the Orange County Republican Party.

“That’s why Michelle Steel moved over (to run in that district), because that was one of her strongest bases,” Whitaker told me. “The party registration may be a little more Democratic, but the way that they vote is Republican.”

The Republican National Committee took notice and last June opened an office in a strip mall in the heart of the community to try to strengthen its ties there. Since then, the GOP has knocked on 75,000 doors and made 200,000 calls in the Steel’s new turf, according to GOP officials.

Steel visited the storefront recently during a training for volunteers to make calls in Vietnamese. Strung across one wall is a 12-foot-long banner featuring a quote attributed to her: “I live in the best country on Earth and I want future generations to achieve their own American Dreams.”

“We’re going to win,” Steel told the dozen volunteers at the training. “No matter what.”

Long Bui, a professor of global and international studies at UC Irvine, said Vietnamese American businesses and voters “will be key to determining who wins this race.”

Their voting patterns, however, aren’t predictable.

Bui, the author of “Returns of War: South Vietnam and the Price of Refugee Memory,” said there’s “a tendency” to think that older Vietnamese — particularly those who fled the Communist takeover of their homeland after the war ended — vote more conservatively than the younger generation.

Instead, Bui said, “the community often considers personalities and who runs the most savvy, impactful campaign. Issues and charisma matter as much or sometimes more than party affiliation.”

Diedre Tu-La Nguyen, the mayor pro-tem of Garden Grove, which is part of Little Saigon, said the Vietnamese community is still small enough that personal relationships often trump party affiliation. The Vietnam-born Democrat, who fled a refugee camp as a child after the war and is now a cancer researcher, is running for Assembly.

“Vietnamese don’t vote for a party, they vote for people,” Nguyen told me over dinner of sea snails, garlic noodles and grilled shrimp at a Little Saigon restaurant. She said that until she ran for office, many didn’t know she was a Democrat. “You just know who people are in the community by their reputation, by what they’ve done.”

In a sign of how unpredictable voters are here, even Nguyen’s household is split. Nguyen’s husband is a Republican.

Democrat Jay Chen is running for Congress in California's 45th Congressional District.
Democrat Jay Chen is running for Congress in California’s 45th Congressional District.Allison Zaucha/Special to The Chronicle

Steel’s main opponent is Jay Chen, a child of Taiwanese immigrants, U.S. Naval Reserve officer, school board member and owner of a real estate firm.

Chen is a better fit for the new district, which “is more working class,” said Ajay Mohan, executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party. Democrats intend to pound Steel for not supporting the federal Paycheck Protection Plan that provided funding to the small businesses that drive the community.

They say Steel — a fervent Trump supporter who received a 77% rating by the Conservative Political Action Committee scorecard (slightly higher than House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield) — is too conservative for the newly drawn district.

Perhaps even more damaging, Chen said, is that she voted against establishing the commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection and against the bipartisan $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan last year.

Steel said the plan was too pricey and sprawling.

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