While the outcome of the race for California's 72nd Assembly District is still up in the air, one thing is certain: a woman with the surname "Nguyen" will prevail.
Taking place in an area in Southern California that's home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, the contest pits Republican Janet Nguyen, 44, a former state senator, against Democrat Diedre Nguyen, 45, a cancer scientist who is a member of the Garden Grove City Council. The race reflects not only the political stature the Vietnamese American community has built over the past 30 years, but also the shifts within it.
"You normally don't see two Vietnamese American women who both have political experience running against one another, one as a Democratic and one as a Republican," Linda Trinh Vo, an Asian American studies professor at the University of California, Irvine, told NBC Asian America.
While Little Saigon has historically been a deep red neighborhood in the former Republican stronghold of Orange County, Vo said that the community is far from a conservative monolith and that it's now varied in terms of age, class, gender and political affiliation.
"Now we're seeing politicians who are representative of that diversity," she said.
Both women beat out the male incumbent — who is also Vietnamese — in the "jungle primary," in which the top two candidates of either party advance to the general election. As of Wednesday afternoon, Janet Nguyen, the Republican, was leading by about 8 percentage points.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, South Vietnamese refugees resettled in the Southern California city of Westminster, later expanding to nearby Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and Santa Ana. Socially conservative and staunchly anti-communist, these first-generation immigrants of Little Saigon — many of whom were small-business owners — gravitated en masse to the Republican Party.
Nationwide, Vietnamese Americans have also tended to be more conservative than other Asian groups. By 48 percent to 36 percent, they are the only cohort that favored President Donald Trump over Joe Biden, according to a survey released in September by the research firm AAPI Data. But like the rest of Orange County — whose entire congressional delegation turned blue in 2018 — Little Saigon has become more liberal over the past decade, albeit more slowly. Before the election last week, Republicans in the 72nd District held just a 2-point advantage in voter registration.
The change is largely driven by young people, Vo said.
More than 17,000 of Orange County's registered Vietnamese voters 18 to 34 years old are Democrats, while only 5,000 are Republicans, according to the bipartisan voter data company Political Data Inc. To some activists, the Assembly race between Janet Nguyen and Diedre Nguyen hints at a leftward, generational shift that will become more pronounced.
"The fact that this race is close contradicts the fact that [Little Saigon] is still a stronghold for GOP voters," said Tracy La, the executive director of VietRISE, a youth-led progressive organizing group formed before the 2018 midterms.
As with other Asian American subgroups, Vietnamese American youths have mobilized around social justice issues, La said. In June, Black and Vietnamese organizers rallied 3,000 people in Garden Grove in a protest against police brutality.
Given the growing proportion of animated young voters, La said, it was a missed opportunity that neither candidate centered her campaign on racial justice or immigration reform.
Over the summer, during a spike in Covid-19 case numbers, the Trump administration deported 30 Vietnamese immigrants and refugees. Many residents, La said, are still afraid of being separated from their families and detained in unsanitary facilities. (Both candidates kept economic issues at the forefront of their campaigns, pledging to rescue small businesses, expand rental assistance and secure funding for schools.)
The high level of political participation in Little Saigon is almost unique among the country's many Asian enclaves, Vo said.
In 1992, Westminster City Council member Tony Lam, a Republican, became the first Vietnamese person elected to public office in the U.S. In 2014, Janet Nguyen became the country's first Vietnamese state senator. (After she narrowly lost a re-election bid in 2018, she pivoted to run for a lower office.) Four years later, two dozen Vietnamese candidates — 13 with the surname Nguyen — ran for a host of local and state offices, including sheriff. In Westminster today, Vietnamese Americans occupy four of the five City Council seats.
"Our community is concentrated economically and residentially," Vo said, noting that families live, work and shop in the same neighborhood. "That's enabled us to build a political base."
The politics of the Vietnamese electorate, according to Vo and La, aren't as simple as the "anti-communist elders" against the "progressive youth." For a population with deep refugee roots, the shadow of homeland politics still looms large, making elected officials vulnerable to what La called "red-baiting."
In September, Orange County Democratic Party Vice Chair Jeff LeTourneau sparked outrage among members of both parties for resharing a Facebook post that celebrated Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Both Janet Nguyen and Diedre Nguyen promptly condemned the incident.
The controversy aggravated an already tense relationship between Little Saigon and the state's Democratic leadership. In June, Gov. Gavin Newsom made an unsubstantiated claim that community spread of the coronavirus started in a nail salon, singling out an industry dominated by Vietnamese Americans.
Fred Whitaker, chair of the Orange County Republican Party, said the Vietnamese diaspora is "a very important segment of our electorate" and a "very dynamic segment of the county, both in the business community and culturally."
The Republican Party, he said, recognized the power of the Vietnamese and Asian American electorates long before the Democratic Party did, in part by incorporating in-language ads into its operations years earlier and recruiting Asian American candidates for local office.
Michelle Steel, a Korean American Republican on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, rolled out an ad with endorsements from prominent Little Saigon politicians during her successful bid to win back a congressional seat the party lost in 2018. (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, released its first Vietnamese-language ad targeting her on a Vietnamese cable channel.)
Assembly member Young Kim, another Korean American Republican, is also on track to win a congressional seat in a district previously held by a Democrat. In two other county and city races, Republican Asian American candidates are also nearing victory.
"It shows that Asian Americans are identifying with the Republican message that's being delivered by somebody from their community," Whitaker said.