Georgia’s Asian American electorate is divided

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In the center of Buford Highway’s Asian Square last Saturday, a crucial component of Democrats’ midterm strategy was on full display — without any Democratic officials.

Behind tables of food and “Asians for Abrams” bucket hats, a group of Indian college students demonstrated bhangra dance steps to middle-age Taiwanese women, prompting laughter and cheers.

Hosted by the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the event represented a targeted effort toward a constituency Democrats have relied on that is now more split.

Georgia’s multiethnic Asian American and Pacific Islander communities were part of the driving force that helped Democrats flip the state in 2020.

Kerry Lee, a Peachtree Corners resident, got involved in the 2020 election cycle after feeling “so mad” at the Republican Party under then-President Donald Trump.

“I don’t know if I really had a single issue pushing me to vote — I think it was just the general climate after Trump and having really intense feelings after that,” Lee said.

This year, however, things look different. Trump — a galvanizing force for many — is no longer on the ballot. And while the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings represented a pivotal moment for many Asian Americans, concerns about gun violence now compete with worries about inflation.

While Democrats have historical advantages in understanding and appealing to Asian American communities, party officials have been inconsistent in their outreach. Meanwhile, Republicans — whose positions on immigration have been a hindrance in the past — are using the economy as an opportunity to make inroads in conservative areas that have previously gained little attention.

In all of this, a slew of down-ballot races this year feature Asian American candidates, Democrats and Republicans.

“There will be more Asian Americans elected come 2023, and it’s showcasing not just that we’re growing in representation, but that we are really growing the numbers of people that are really engaged in the process,” Asian American Advocacy Fund Director Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood said.

The economy

With Asian Americans making up a sizable share of business owners, particularly in areas such as Gwinnett County, many say they’re concerned about keeping their workplaces afloat.

“Small businesses are the heartbeat of our economy … so it’s important as you put forward solutions that we’re intentional about making sure that there’s equity. The AAPI community punches way above its weight in the entrepreneurial space,” U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said at a recent stop to court Asian American voters in Duluth.

Asian American voters have overwhelmingly gone for Democrats in recent elections because of their open philosophy toward groups in the margins, Mahmood said.

“It’s this whole big tent vision of like, we are accepting, we are inclusive, we want to support every single person out there,” Mahmood said. “That really resonates for a lot of people who have felt left out of the political process.”

But, because of the variety of cultures encompassed in the Asian American label, “it is really very complex to organize and to activate our community,” Mahmood said. That makes maintaining support difficult.

Republicans have expanded efforts to win over conservative pockets of the electorate.

U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker drew a large crowd in September while campaigning at the Global Mall in Norcross with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, an Indian American.

Gov. Brian Kemp held a celebration last week at the Global Mall in Norcross to mark Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, that featured a Bollywood flash mob, Hindi music and a diya that Kemp lit to cheers from a couple of hundred attendees.

Several Indian American voters said the mere presence of the state’s leading Republican at a significant event resonated with them. “It’s a big deal that for our Hindu Samaj, you’ve got an American governor that’s holding a Diwali function,” said Lou Patel, 48, of Warner Robins.

Conservative Indian Americans say they’re backing Kemp because he “helped small business owners to get back on track,” Patel said. Alpharetta resident Meghana Naik, who attended the Diwali celebration, put it bluntly: A vote for Kemp means “going back to what has worked.”

Democrat advantages

Benefiting from years of experience, Democratic campaigns are seeking to regalvanize turnout with multilingual outreach and by holding events alongside established groups targeting Asian American voters — areas where they’re outpacing Republicans.

Suwanee resident Kym Lee says she doesn’t vote solely for either party but recently attended her first political rally, thanks to information from Asian American groups that support Democrats.

“It’s pretty intimidating in terms of voting when you get different things in the mail and then you see different signs,” Lee said. “But I do think there are more resources now — I want people to know it’s not as hard.”

Candidates themselves have strove to mitigate that uncertainty. Bee Nguyen, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, has repeatedly cited her upbringing as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants in fueling her run.

Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign has held several events on how issues such as gun control and abortion affect AAPI voters, in addition to running ads aimed at the community and getting advice from its representatives.

Democratic state Rep. Sam Park said gun violence continues to be a problem for Asian American voters still shaken by the spa shooting violence and COVID-19-related spikes in anti-Asian hate.

“I think a lot of people are in pain,” Park said. “We’re still coming out of the pandemic, and people want good leadership, someone with a plan in place to hopefully navigate the challenges that we’re facing.”

Changes in approach

Asian American-oriented groups say efforts by both parties aren’t enough. To Phi Nguyen, director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, the Democratic Party has encouraged candidates to do more outreach around election season but may fail to consistently build trust and respond to concerns year-round.

“I get the sense that they don’t put as many resources toward that outreach as they could, and that sort of investment doesn’t really meaningfully continue beyond an election cycle,” Nguyen said.

The Republican National Committee says it made such an investment last year when it opened its first Asian Pacific American community center in Berkeley Lake, part of a statewide effort to appeal to voters of color. They’ve opened similar centers for Hispanic and Black voters.

“While there might be outreach from the other side, they’re not reaching out in the ways that we are, they don’t have a physical infrastructure in the way that we do,” said Garrison Douglas, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

The center has held candidate meetups and potlucks for attendees to “meet other people from within the community and have important conversations,” Douglas said. They’re hoping voters will look past inflammatory rhetoric around COVID-19 and immigration and instead focus on issues such as inflation and school choice.

The GOP has also backed Asian American candidates such as Soo Hong, who is running for a Statehouse seat in Gwinnett.

A longtime Republican, Hong says she ran for office because she felt representation is a driving factor in who Asian Americans vote for — and she wanted people from her community to trust a party long marred by anti-immigrant sentiments.

“I’ve had a lot of Asian Americans come to me and say, ‘I’m glad that you’re Republican. I believe in conservative values and we were just waiting for somebody to run that we can get behind,’ ” Hong said.