When Debbie Chen temporarily closed her Houston restaurant in March due to the coronavirus, she was worried about her health and her financial livelihood.
But as a Chinese American, she was also worried about vandalism and her physical safety, given how President Donald Trump and others were blaming China for the pandemic and using racist monikers for the virus.
Seven months later, as Texans head to the polls in the 2020 elections, she hasn’t forgotten. Chen works on Asian American and Pacific Islander voter turnout every year, but this year she feels even more motivated.
“I was so afraid someone would get attacked,” Chen said. Trump’s rhetoric “perpetuates this stereotype that Asians are foreigners or something.” [Read more about Chen’s experience during the coronavirus here.]
Voters who share Chen's feelings could have a major impact on the 2020 elections. The share of Asian Americans nationwide remains less than 5% of the total electorate. But it’s the fastest growing racial or ethnic voting group in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.
In Texas, there are sizable Asian American communities in districts that hold an outsized importance this year. Democrats are hopeful that they can flip nine seats in the state House to gain a majority in the lower chamber ahead of next year’s legislative session. Key among those efforts are nine seats held by Republicans in which former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, received more votes than U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018. In two-thirds of those districts, the Asian share of the population is more than double the statewide share. Multiple U.S. House seats targeted by Democrats have large Asian American populations, too.
“There are some districts where there’s a significant enough level of organization and voters that can make a difference if it’s a matter of turnout and the races are close enough,” said Madeline Hsu, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Asian American voters are hardly a monolith. While the Indian American population has leaned reliably Democratic for years, Vietnamese Americans tend to lean Republican. And Filipino Americans are more evenly divided.
Since 2016, Trump has made small inroads with Vietnamese and Indian Americans but lost support among Chinese Americans, according to polls from the Asian American Voter Survey.
But recent polling also suggests that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who are sometimes referred to collectively as the AAPI community, overall may turn out in higher numbers for Democrats in 2020.
“You had this ‘Chinese Americans for Trump’ phenomenon in 2016 and it looked like that was a group that was maybe going to go conservative over time,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California, Riverside political science professor who runs a survey on Asian American voters. “But his support has actually gotten worse among Chinese Americans. It’s not just the anti-China rhetoric, but all the bigotry he unleashed during the coronavirus is hurting.”
Ramakrishnan cited actions by the president while in office as contributing factors, noting how this year Trump repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and imposed major new limits on H-1B visas that allow people from other countries to work in the United States — a move that disproportionately affected Chinese and Indian immigrants.
Nearly a week after a buoyant Trump emerged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — fresh off around-the-clock medical treatment during his own bout with the virus — he was at the first presidential debate referring to COVID-19 as the “China plague.” Prior to that, he was at the forefront of pushing a narrative that responsibility for the virus lies with China.
Some Asian Americans’ leftward shift started even before the pandemic hit, Ramakrishnan noted. In 1992, less than one-third of Asian Americans voted for President Bill Clinton. Now, a large chunk identify as Democrats, with 54% saying they plan to back former Vice President Joe Biden and 30% saying they’d vote for Trump, according to the latest Asian American Voter Survey released in September.
Texas numbers are harder to gauge. Asian Americans make up about 5% of the population and most statewide polls don’t contact enough Asian voters to provide a reliable sample.
Still, not everyone is convinced that Trump’s rhetoric will have a significantly adverse effect on the GOP this fall. Hsu said Taiwainese Americans may be more likely to support Trump’s hardline policies against China, while socially conservative Asian Americans are also likely to back the incumbent Republican.
Nonetheless, Democrats and their allies have taken multiple steps to court Asian voters in Texas: Everytown for Gun Safety has been running ads in Asian American print papers across the state to “to reach constituents we haven’t adequately engaged with in the past,” according to a spokesperson for the group. The Democratic National Committee announced a new radio ad campaign on Wednesday to reach AAPI voters in Texas. The campaign is multilingual and will target voters in the Houston and Dallas markets, where many of the competitive state House races are located.
Late last month, the Texas Democratic Party’s AAPI Caucus, AAPIs for Biden and the Asian American Democrats of Texas announced a 10-day campaign to celebrate and mobilize AAPI voters.
Perhaps the district where the impact on campaigning is most clear is the 22nd Congressional District, where Sri Preston Kulkarni is running against Republican Troy Nehls for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land.
Kulkarni says his campaign is engaging with voters in 27 different languages in the diverse Fort Bend County district, once a conservative stronghold. Olson won reelection in 2018 against Kulkarni by 5 percentage points. After Olson announced he wouldn’t run for reelection in 2020, Democrats have identified the seat as one of their top targets.
“The Asian American voters my campaign is talking to every day are ready and enthusiastic for more representation in this country’s halls of power,” Kulkarni said. “I think the rise in Asian American turnout is a great sign for our race. These are voters who aren’t overly partisan, they just want reasonable leadership who will fight for them in Congress, rather than an ideology or a political party.”
His opponent, meanwhile, launched an “Asian Americans for Nehls” coalition advisory board in September with the goal of guiding the campaign’s outreach to Asian communities. At a campaign rally with U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Sept. 18 in Richmond, Nehls emphasized the district’s diversity.
“We have so many friends here,” Nehls said at the time. “My friends from the Hindu community … the Muslim community … my African conservative community. … We have our Chinese Americans here, our Hispanics. We are all one family in the fight together for November.”
In the nearby swing state House District 26, Asian Americans make up 30% of the population. If Republicans want to hold the seat, said Craig LeTulle, a longtime GOP activist in Fort Bend County, they’ll need to court voters beyond “the GOP’s brand of the old, white guy’s party.”
LeTulle said he and other Republicans in the area have worked to reach out to the Asian American community. When he has, he said, he’s been able to “convince them that our conservative traditional values are like their conservative values.”
“When white or Anglo grassroots people like me reach out to those communities and we share with them what the party's really about, I find that they gravitate toward the party,” he said, citing connections on “fiscal issues or otherwise.”
Late last year, state Rep. Rick Miller, the Sugar Land Republican who has represented the district since 2013, announced he was no longer running for reelection after he sparked a firestorm for saying his primary challenger was running against him only because he is Asian. Running to replace him is Democrat L. Sarah DeMerchant and Republican Jacey Jetton, who is half Korean.
In most of the state’s legislative swing districts, Republicans are trying to hold onto suburban seats where support for Trump is slipping. In a secretly recorded conversation that went public last year, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican, lamented with a hardline conservative activist about the Richardson district of fellow Republican state Rep. Angie Chen Button, the only Asian American woman in the Legislature, noting he had polled the district and found Trump down 15 percentage points there. Button, who declined an interview for this story, narrowly won reelection in 2018 by 2 percentage points, or about 1,000 votes.
Meanwhile, in the 2nd Congressional District Sima Ladjevardian — who is Iranian American — sees a prime political opportunity against U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston.
“This whole tsunami of hate has just really scared the AAPI community,” Ladjevardian said. “There were very big concerns about their businesses being vandalized and they’re scared that there’s this atmosphere where hate is allowed.”
In interviews, Asian American politicians, candidates and academics vowed to make their voices heard at the polls and speak out to protect their community despite a turbulent political climate.
“I think for a lot of people it’s almost like a visceral pain,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “They’re disgusted by what’s been happening. And it’s not just an existential type of attack, but the Asian American community, especially the Chinese American community, feels their lives are being threatened because they’re being singled out.
“When Donald Trump uses language like the ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu,’ that doesn’t just put Chinese Americans in danger — that puts all Asian Americans in danger,” Wu said, “because nobody knows the difference between someone who’s Chinese and Vietnamese, and no one cares.”
Wu drew outrage from Republicans earlier this month after he posted — and then deleted — a tweet on the day Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19 that said, “Hard to serve a prison sentence if you’re dead.” He later tweeted that he wished Trump a full recovery.
At times, Trump has attempted to make overtures to Asian Americans. He tweeted in March that it was “very important that we totally protect our Asian-American community in the United States.” But has continued to use racist terms like "kung flu" to describe the virus, though the White House has said his aim has been to note where the virus came from, "not a discussion about Asian Americans, who the president values and prizes as citizens of this great country."
Chen noted Trump’s language could strike a chord even with conservative Asian Americans.
“We have people across the spectrum, so I always tell the community’s Asian Americans they need to vote so both parties take our community seriously as a viable bloc they still have a chance to win over.”
Still, Asian American voters have been moving toward the Democratic Party over the past two decades. Democratic candidates hope to see that trend continue in 2020.
“Most Asian American voters are naturalized citizens. They don’t have a really strong party identification, although over time it has gotten stronger,” Ramakrishnan said. “So where the parties stand on the issues and the kind of rhetoric that is used gives them a strong sense of where they are welcome and where they are not.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.