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Democrats hope to turn Texas blue — in part by banking on Asian Americans

If Sri Kulkarni and others win in Texas, relying on Asian Americans will become the norm in the Democratic Party, an expert believes.
Sri Preston Kulkarni
Democrat for Congress candidate Sri Kulkarni, center, listens to supporters attending a fundraiser for him in Houston on July 29, 2018.David J. Phillip / AP file

Among the largest efforts undertaken by Democrats this election season is the bid to flip Texas, which hasn't backed a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter over 40 years ago. But it has been touted as being "in play."

The population of Texas has swelled in the past few years, owing mostly to an influx of multi-religious and multiethnic communities, all driven toward its sprawling cities. The electorate has expanded with over 2.1 million additions since 2016. Polls have begun to predict a close race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the state, and Asian Americans might have a big role to play in swinging the vote.

According to AAPI Data, a group that tracks the community in numbers, eligible Asian American voters in Texas shot up by estimates ranging from 42 to 50 percent from 2012 to 2018. The spike is higher than the overall population growth in Texas — pegged at 12 percent. It is estimated that Asian Americans are 5.5 percent of Texas' voting population today.

And yet, Texas has never produced an Asian American member of Congress.

"Even in Texas, Asian Americans were traditionally inclined to vote Republican, because 75 percent of the voters vote Republican," said Varun Nikore, founding president of AAPI Victory Fund, which has pledged a whopping $1 million to help increase Asian American turnout and bolster AAPI candidates in the state. "I predict that after this election cycle, the next big voting bloc for the Democrats will be Asian Americans."

In the bid to turn the state blue, Democrats have offered at least five Asian American candidates for Congress. Moreover, five candidates of South Asian descent are in the running at all levels of government — county, state and federal. The three South Asians running for federal office — Dr. Pritish Gandhi in the 10th Congressional District, Donna Imam in the 31st District and Sri Kulkarni in the 22nd District — are all representative of the state's changing demographics.

How Sen. Kamala Harris could have an impact

Experts believe moderate Democrats will usher in political change in Texas. A Biden-Harris ticket, in that respect, is a potential crowd puller. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a biracial candidate who would make history by becoming the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president, could resonate with the rising desi voter base in Texas.

Harris was recently seen aiding the cause and underlining the importance of flipping the state: "If we turn Texas blue, we can guarantee we've blocked Donald Trump's path back to the White House," she wrote in a blog for Texas Democrats, reiterating that she was asking for Texans to turn up not for just the presidential vote, but also for "Democrats up and down the ballot who will fight on behalf of working people."

That bodes well for other South Asians contesting Texas, too, experts say. The race toward flipping Texas with Asian Americans' playing a huge part is so strong that Houston's 22nd District contest has become one of the most expensive and hotly contested congressional races this season.

The South Asian American population in Houston has grown tremendously over the last three decades. And if Kulkarni wins, it will signify the power of growing Desi voters in the South, said Sangay Mishra, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University in New Jersey and author of "Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans."

"They are traditionally seen as confined to coasts, but Texas signifies something different," Mishra said.

Nikore agreed that "it is in the Sun Belt and the Southern states — Arizona, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia — that the Asian American growth has been immense," he said. "It has to do with where the jobs are growing."

How banking on Asian Americans could become the norm

Sri Preston Kulkarni, 41, is a former diplomat, a polyglot conversant in at least six languages who quit his foreign service job to fight Trump's party. His campaign is especially vocal about its pro-immigration politics, among the most important of political causes for Asian Americans. Experts give Kulkarni, who is part-white and part-Indian, a strong chance of taking the open seat as a Democrat.

"Sri will bring the experience of being Indian, biracial and of growing up in an immigrant community," said Khyati Joshi, a professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and author of multiple books about race, ethnicity and immigration. "As everyday people see someone whose life experience resembles theirs having a seat at tables of political power, they also see the power of their vote and a reason to get involved."

Involvement is key when it comes to the community. Part of the problem is that Asian Americans don't turn out to vote, but that is mostly because they aren't reached out to as much, experts say. A recent AAPI Data poll found that 56 percent of Asian American voters nationally said they hadn't been contacted at all by the Democratic Party, while 59 percent said the same of the Republicans.

"South Asian Americans have to harness the power of our electorate, and historically our communities haven't been good at doing that," Joshi said. "Demographic power is meaningless until we make sure everyone registers and votes."

That is why Kulkarni's campaign is becoming important. His success has the potential to prove how higher engagement can lead to higher turnout.

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His highly gerrymandered Republican district was won by Mitt Romney in 2012, and it went for Trump in 2016. But because of swiftly changing demographics, the high turnout of Asian Americans in the primaries and a host of campaign strategies to drive turnout, observers call it a potential swing district.

Kulkarni's district is also home to Texas' largest proportion of Asian American voters, at 15.4 percent of the electorate. He came close in 2018 — falling just 5 points short of defeating incumbent Republican Pete Olson.

Kulkarni has run a micro-targeted campaign. Using volunteers from high school students and neighborhood aunties to highly skilled professionals, Kulkarni's campaign has reached out to voters in no fewer than 13 languages and on instant messaging platforms that the communities are comfortable using — Indians on WhatsApp and Chinese on WeChat. Kulkarni has also campaigned in temples, churches and mosques.

If Kulkarni and others win in Texas, banking on Asian Americans will become the norm in the Democratic Party, Nikore said.

"This effort to engage in Texas is not a one-off tactical plan on our part," he said. "It is a long-term strategic vision we have for essentially changing the trajectory of political empowerment for AAPIs for the long run."

CORRECTION (Sept. 4, 2020, 5:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the group Varun Nikore founded. It is the AAPI Victory Fund, not Impact Fund.