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How congressional candidates pitch themselves to Asian-American voters

“The biggest thing is them seeing that you’re there, and that you’re listening and that you’re involved.”
Sri Preston Kulkarni
Democrat for Congress candidate Sri Kulkarni, center, listens to supporters attending a fundraiser for him in Houston. Kulkarni is running against Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson.David J. Phillip / AP file

Everyone told Sri Preston Kulkarni, a Texas Democratic congressional candidate, not to bother with Asian-American voters because they don’t vote.

“I said, maybe they don’t vote because we don’t bother,” Kulkarni recalled.

So Kulkarni, a former U.S. foreign service officer for 14 years, got to work targeting everyone from Indian to Chinese Americans, Vietnamese to Pakistani Americans, in the diverse suburban Greater Houston House district he hopes to represent.

“When you’re talking about bringing out an entire community, especially the size we have in this district, it’s definitely worth it to us because it can make the difference between flipping a congressional seat or not,” Kulkarni said.

The Key to Victory

Kulkarni counts himself among congressional candidates pursuing a voting bloc that is part of the fastest growing racial group, according to the Pew Research Center, and that researchers predict will double by 2040.

While the Census shows that just 4 percent of voters nationwide identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander, this demographic could end up swinging races in 27 congressional districts across 11 states, according to AAPI Data, a program at the University of California, Riverside.

Turnout will be key, which for midterm elections has particularly been a challenge for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data and a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside.

A recent survey, though, found that Asian-American voters have largely not been contacted by political parties and candidates.

NBC News reached out to Democratic and Republican candidates in three races that experts identified as competitive and where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders represent at least 10 percent of eligible voters.

Those include Texas’ 22nd District, Nevada’s 3rd District and California’s 48th District.

Only Kulkarni in Texas, Susie Lee in Nevada and Harley Rouda in California — all Democrats — responded to requests for an interview.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives, did not return an email seeking comment.

Outreach Efforts

Census figures show that people of Asians descent make up roughly 19 percent of residents in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District, currently represented by incumbent Pete Olson, a Republican.

Kulkarni said his campaign, from the very beginning, has targeted the district’s South Asian community, from which he hails.

“It’s extremely large and has had relatively low level of voter engagement,” he said.

As part of their outreach, Kulkarni's volunteers comb through voter lists, identifying members of their ethnic, language and religious communities, his campaign said. Members of those communities then reach out to those voters in over a dozen languages.

Kulkarni’s campaign said they’ve made contact with thousands through this method.

“These networks exist in the communities, but nobody’s actually engaging them in that way, as opposed to just doing a random phone bank or a random door knocking, you meet whoever you meet there, which doesn't really help,” Kulkarni said.

Susie Lee canvasses a neighborhood on the day of the primary election on June 12, 2018, in Henderson, Nev. Lee is a Democratic candidate for Nevada's 3rd Congressional District.John Locher / AP file

The majority of Kulkarni’s volunteers speak multiple languages, he said. Kulkarni himself is fluent in six, including Hindi and Mandarin, a skill set he said has been a boon on the campaign trail and with donors.

“I’ve knocked on doors where I’ve switched from English to Spanish to Chinese all on the same street,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the race for an open seat in Nevada’s 3rd District, Democratic candidate Susie Lee said she’s hosted events and roundtables early on with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, which accounts for around 15 percent of this district south of Las Vegas.

“The biggest thing is them seeing that you’re there, and that you’re listening and that you’re involved,” Lee said.

A Vietnamese-language ad for Democrat candidate Harley Rouda.Courtesy of Harley Rouda for Congress

Lee said her campaign also goes through call lists, looking at names and trying to figure out what language voters might speak. Her campaign said they’ve made contact with hundreds this way.

“We can match up some bilingual callers, so in case we get a voter on the line who doesn’t speak English as their native language, you can talk to them in a more comfortable fashion,” Lee said.

Out in California’s 48th District, Democratic candidate Harley Rouda said he’s been busy doing interviews with Vietnamese ethnic media, including TV and newspapers, in addition to in-language canvassing, advertising and phone banking.

Vietnamese, he said, make up the predominant Asian-American group in his Southern California district, represented by Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. Census figures show that close to 19 percent of the district identified as Asian, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian.

“Every vote matters in the district, and for a guy who won the second seat in the primary by 125 votes out of 175,000, I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said.

Vying For The Vote

The Republican Party has previously declared victory in the fight for Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. In the 2014 midterm elections, 50 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who responded to the National Election Pool exit poll voted for a Republican House candidate, compared to 49 percent who voted for a Democratic House candidate.

This time could be different.

“At the very least, we don’t see the same gap in enthusiasm that we saw in 2014 between Asian-American Republicans and Asian-American Democrats,” Ramakrishnan, the public policy professor, said.

But on a different front, Vietnamese appear to be heading back toward the GOP under President Donald Trump, Ramakrishnan said, citing findings in a new report released this week.

Forty-two percent identified as Republican and 28 percent as Democrat, according to the survey, conducted by APIAVote with nonprofits AAPI Data, the AARP, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC. In a pre-election 2016 survey directed by Ramakrishnan, 23 percent of Vietnamese Americans identified as Republicans and 29 percent as Democrats.

That could impact some races, like the one in Texas’ 22nd District, which Ramakrishnan said has a sizable Vietnamese population, as Democrats try to take control of Congress.

Another wild card is the fact that in the last presidential election, a combined 44 percent of Asian Americans said they either weren’t registered to vote or had no response to that question, according to the Census.

What’s more, nearly 2 in 5 didn’t identify as either a Democrat or Republican, the recent survey found.

“That’s where there’s still room for persuasion,” Ramakrishnan said, “because many of them don’t call themselves Democrats, even if they might vote for Democratic candidates.”

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