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GOP Rep. Michelle Steel wins re-election in contentious House race between 2 Asian Americans

Steel defeated Democrat Jay Chen in a highly competitive and sometimes ugly race in Orange County, California.
Image: Congresswomen Michelle Steel
Rep. Michelle Steel. Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group via Getty Images

After a contentious race in Orange County, California, Republican incumbent Michelle Steel will represent the redrawn 45th Congressional District.

Steel defeated Democrat Jay Chen in a rare matchup between two Asian American candidates. With more than three-quarters of the ballots in, Steel won with 53.8% of the vote while Chen received 46.2%, NBC News projected. 

Steel, 67, made history in 2020 as one of the first three Korean American women elected to Congress. An immigrant, Steel came to the U.S. in her early 20s, first opening a clothing store with her family. Prior to serving in Congress, Steel was a supervisor and chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. 

Jay Chen and supporters
Jay Chen at his campaign office in Garden Grove on Oct. 22. Jenna Schoenefeld / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Chen, 44,  ran for a House seat in 2020 before withdrawing. He serves as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. Chen, the son of Taiwanese parents, attended Harvard on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship before working for a consulting firm. 

Steel's win comes as the district is undergoing changes. Once regarded as a Republican stronghold, Orange County has proven to be a battleground district in the past few election cycles. An estimated 38% of county residents registered as Democrats, just edging out Republicans, at just over 32% as of this year. Another quarter reported no party preference. 

The political shift has been driven by the growth of the Asian American and Pacific Islander population in the area. From 2000 to 2010, the population surged by more than 40% in Orange County. Today, they make up more than a third of the electorate in the district. Among them, almost half are Vietnamese Americans who, while tending to lean right, split with the GOP on issues like health care and tax redistribution, Janelle Wong, senior researcher at the nonprofit group AAPI Data, told NBC News. 

With a win that in part hinged on the Asian American vote, the race, at times, got nasty, with both candidates fighting to portray themselves as authentic representatives of the community. Throughout the election cycle, the issue of China emerged as a central point of contention. Experts say that similar focus has been used in past campaigns to appeal to the area’s older Vietnamese population, which associates upheaval with communism due to the Vietnam War. 

On Monday, dozens of Asian American organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC and the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, condemned candidates “using sinophobia, a fear or dislike of China” in a letter. They encouraged campaigns to cease the rhetoric, writing that it contributes to anti-Asian hate. 

As ugly as the race has been, experts say it’s reflective of a political maturation among Asian Americans. 

“This is just a great example of how rich and diverse our community is,” Connie Chung Joe, chief executive of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, said in an interview last month. “And really, people need to become far more sophisticated in how they try to approach our community and really look at it from a more nuanced and disaggregated way.”