Cleveland, Ohio — A rapping attorney general, a Chinese American for Donald Trump, and the first Asian-American woman appointed to a president's cabinet were among dozens of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who attended an Asian Pacific American (APA) Republican leadership breakfast Wednesday morning.
Speakers — including AAPI elected officials, delegates, and community leaders — emphasized the connections between AAPI values on education, self-reliance, and family and those embraced by the Republican party. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus also dropped by the event, held at the Hard Rock Cafe in the city's downtown district, and praised the party's efforts in making inroads into the Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, as well as with blacks and Hispanics.
"I know this isn't the most exciting topic — mechanics, ground game, data — but this is what matters if we're going to win and become a competent national party again," Priebus told the crowd.
The GOP has seen support from the AAPI electorate steadily wane since 1992, a year when 55 percent of Asian Americans voted for Republican President George H.W. Bush, according to Cornell's Roper Center. In the last presidential election, 26 percent of Asian Americans cast ballots for GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
Seeking to reclaim the AAPI voting bloc, the Republican party created a grassroots field program three years ago, overseen by RNC national director of APA engagement Jason Chung, to win back an electorate expected to double by 2040.
The fruits of that labor were on display at Wednesday's event, organized by California national committeeman Shawn Steel and the RNC. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, appointed in December 2013 and later elected to office, added some light-hearted humor after taking the stage to speak, first snapping a selfie and then tossing a Pokéball using Pokémon Go, the popular mobile game.
"There's this myth that Asians are boring and that Republicans don't know how to have fun," Reyes said. "I don't know about you, but I'm Asian and Republican, and I know how to have some fun."
The son of a Spanish-Filipino immigrant father and a Japanese-Hawaiian mother, Reyes told the audience that the GOP and presidential nominee Donald Trump both represent Asian Pacific American values.
"People overlook him all the time, and he comes out on top because he's successful and he's a winner," Reyes, who is also a delegate, said. "Tireless work-ethic, again family man — these are things that represent who we are as a community."
Reyes, who used to deejay, then finished with a rap song he performed for the audience.
Speaking to NBC News before addressing the crowd, Tian Wang, founder of Chinese Americans for Trump, said education was the number one issue for Asian Americans. If elected, Trump has vowed to end the Common Core, a controversial set of academic standards in math and English adopted by 42 states, and to bring education to the "local level."
Wang, who was born in China and lives in California, said he has fundraised and also canvassed for votes for Trump. He also dismissed sentiment expressed by some Asian Americans, who believe the Democratic party best reflects the views of the AAPI electorate.
"We want to be a contributing factor to the society we live in — our adopted nation," he said. "That's why we have to adopt Republican values. We don't want to sit around and get things for free, get things handed down to us. We're not like that."
Although AAPI Republicans here say the GOP has more in common with Asian Americans than the Democratic party, a survey released in May by nonpartisan advocacy groups tells a different story. Nearly half of the 1,212 respondents viewed the GOP unfavorably, while Asian-American voters overwhelmingly gave Democrats the advantage in dealing with a range of issues, from the environment to health care, according to the survey.
Handling terrorism was the only thing AAPI respondents thought Republicans did better than Democrats, by a small margin, the survey found. Through outreach, GOP officials hope to convert Asian-American voters on the other issues as well.
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who served for eight years under President George W. Bush, told those gathered that she's always been an advocate for getting more AAPIs involved in participating in American democracy.
Wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Chao got her own start in government as a White House fellow and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 as chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, an independent regulatory agency.
An immigrant from Taiwan, Chao said AAPIs have a lot to contribute to mainstream America.
"But, also, America can learn so much from us," she said.