Voters in southern California go to the polls Tuesday in a showdown for a U.S. House seat that has become a contest between a larger, but historically less engaged Latino electorate and fewer, though revved-up, Asian American voters.
Two-term California Assembly member Jimmy Gomez faces attorney and former Los Angeles city planning commissioner Robert Lee Ahn in the Congressional District 34 race. The seat opened up after the district's former congressman, Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra, resigned to be sworn is as the state's first Latino attorney general.
Latinos make up about 50 percent of registered voters, while voters of Asian descent, the country’s fastest-growing racial group, are about 16 percent.
But the primary showed that Ahn’s chance to be the first Korean-American elected from the district has excited some of the Asian population, particularly those who share his Korean background. Gomez and Ahn were the top two finishers in the primary, with Gomez winning by 1,313 votes.
Considering that Latino registered voters outnumber Asian American registered voters 148,467 to 47,822, that’s a pretty close margin and set up competitive runoff. Polls close Tuesday at 8 p.m. PDT (11 p.m. EDT).
Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who has advised Latino candidates, projected Gomez would win the race because Latinos “overwhelmingly are Election Day voters.”
But he said the tight election in a Latino drawn district, should serve as a wakeup call that representation ultimately comes down to turnout, even in a majority Latino district like CD34.
“We (Latinos) have the largest voting age population that does not vote,” he said.
“If Latinos voted at the same rate as white voters, our firm estimates there would be an increase of 600 mayors and council members,” in California, said Madrid, a principal at Grassroots Lab. Currently, of an estimated 2,800 mayors and council members in California, only 425 are Latino, he said.
Maria Patricia Ramblaz, 52, said she doesn’t know who she’s voting for Tuesday, but that she can feel a tenor of skepticism about voting among others in the district.
“From what I hear, people were kind of disappointed, asking themselves, ‘Why should I vote, and take my time to vote when they’re still going to do what they want to do?’,” said Ramblaz, owner of The Garage Lounge & Skate Shop in Boyle Heights. The shop sells skate boards and also provides art, music and other programs for local youth in the shop.
“The candidates need to encourage people to get out and vote. People don’t feel confident about it. Also, candidates need to give people more information, so they know who to vote for,” she said. She hadn’t decided who she would vote for Tuesday.
In the April 4 primary, 42,914 of 304,905, or 14 percent of registered voters, cast ballots, according to state data.
Barring a surge of voters on Election Day, Tuesday’s runoff also was not expected to draw heavy turnout. Ahn finished second to Gomez, sending the two to Tuesday’s runoff. He outdid all candidates – 23 in total – on mail-in ballots, 6,540 to Gomez’s 5,114. But 5,614 votes cast on Election Day went to Gomez, versus 2,875 to Ahn.
As of Monday, 8,141 voters of Asian descent had cast mail-in and early voting ballots, while 5,551 Latinos had done so, according to Political Data Inc., a bipartisan voter data company in California.
Charlie Ruiz Vazquez, 21, a full-time student at Cal State Northridge and part-time health advocate at Clinica Romero, a community clinic in Boyle Heights, said Gomez is appealing because of what he's done for the LGBTQ community.
“From what I’ve seen he has been the most vocal on LGBTQ issues, and as a member of that community it has an impact on me. Other candidates haven’t taken a very strong stance on that,” Ruiz Vazquez said.
Gomez campaign spokesman Parke Skelton said he expects the election outcome to be similar to the primary, where Gomez is relatively close in mail-in/early voter totals and "we win easily in the precincts."
There are many voters who are not Latino or Korean American who he projected Gomez will win. Many of the non-Latino white voters in the district live in areas Gomez represented in his council district. In addition, Gomez will likely split the non-Korean Asian-American voters with Ahn, he said.
James Lee, spokesman for Ahn's campaign, said the campaign is "walking a hell of a lot more" to knock on doors to talk with and get out voters. It is producing three times the volume in campaign mailers than in the primary. Also, it has upped its contacts with voters. The campaign also is talking to voters who did not vote or who didn't vote for Gomez or Ahn in the primary, he said.
Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, said that there is a long history of racially polarized voting splits in the district and a record of small blocs of racial or ethnic groups being able to sway an election, such as the Armenian American population that backed Paul Krekorian in a Los Angeles City Council race. David Ryu, the first Korean-American to hold a council seat, surprised many by finishing well enough to make the runoff in 2015 race and eventually win his council seat with the help of a small population of voters in a low-election turnout.
“You do have enormous growth in the Latino voting bloc, but also some fatigue. This is the fifth election in the area in the last 10 months. So, you have to deal with this fatigue and for the Korean population, the election is an up and coming ethnic minority that has something to prove,” Mitchell said.
Oscar Durado, 55, a fine arts screen printer at Self-Help Graphics & Art, a community arts center in Boyle Heights, planned to vote for Gomez because of his track record as a member of the Assembly. But he acknowledged the larger Latino numbers didn’t make Gomez a shoo-in.
“Ahn will get a lot of turnout because a lot of Latinos can’t vote —also, a lot of folks are apathetic because there’s been so little support for their particular needs and issues that affect them. It creates a sense of hopelessness,” Durado said. “It’s like it doesn’t matter who wins; it’s not going to affect their day-to-day lives.”
But, he said, the election is Gomez’s to lose. “I think they’re both good candidates, but I think most people in my community will be voting for Jimmy,” he said. “People are working and they are tired, and barely making ends meet, so these kinds of elections are tough.”
The ethnic and racial split in the election is a contrast to the unity among racial and ethnic groups seen and intensifying on the national landscape, particularly in response to the election of President Donald Trump. That hasn’t “bled down on the ground,” Mitchell said. “You still have really strong, racially polarized voting from community college board to city council elections, especially in pockets of California that have tight-knit ethnic communities.”
Both candidates built campaign chests of about $1.3 million since January.
Rep. Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat and chariman of BOLDPAC, the political action committee of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the committee had contributed about $250,000 with Latino Victory Fund to help Gomez win.
“For every candidate it’s important to turn out their base and part of the reason BOLDPAC is involved is Jimmy Gomez is a quality candidate with a proven track record. He cares about working families and the working poor,” Cardenas said.
Cardenas attributed Ahn’s lead in mail-in ballots to Ahn “benefitting from the fact that he’s wealthy enough to give $5,000 to his campaign.” While Ahn leads now, he said he’ll probably be “dwarfed” 2-1 by votes on Election Day for Gomez.
Another question for the election is how people who backed any of the 21 other candidates in the primary, particularly those who called themselves Sanders progressives, will vote or whether they will show up. Gomez has picked up more endorsements from other primary candidates and has been endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the California Nurses Association, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Cardenas compared the race to the victory by Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., last year for California’s Congressional District 44 seat. She finished second in a 10-candidate primary, then went on to beat the primary's first place finisher and the general election's early favorite Isadore Hall, also a Democrat. Barragán was helped by Latino votes that had gone to other candidates in the primary.
“In general, you saw people come home,” Cardenas said.
Frank Rodriguez, 54, works part-time at the Alhambra library and is his mother’s caretaker. He didn’t vote for Gomez in the primary. Although he wouldn’t say Gomez would get his vote Tueday, he said Gomez would represent the district well in Washington and that if elected, Gomez would take on the Trump administration “and help California and Los Angelenos on climate change, immigration, jobs and other issues that we’re fighting and resisting Trump on.”
He said he’d like to see the Latino community improve turnout in elections. “I would hope that what’s happening in D.C. would encourage them to become more involved,” he said. “The Asian community tends to come out in greater numbers and like Republicans, they’re more unified when it comes to voting.”
Regardless of who wins, he said there is a commonality for the communities to focus on after the election.
“No matter what, we need to unite and resist and hopefully, get Trump out of office and more Republicans out of office because they’re completely corrupt,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully we can get things back on track. I also hope Bernie [Sanders’] supporters will come out. We can’t be complacent and expect others to do it for us.”
NBC contributor Rebekah Sager reported from Los Angeles.