What the Election of Asian American GOP Women Means for the PartyRoundup
tags: Republican Party, California, Asian American History
Jane Hong is an associate professor of history at Occidental College and the author of Opening the Gates to Asia: A Transpacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion. She is currently writing a book about race and evangelicalism in America.
Speaking to Fox News Channel on Nov. 14, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declared 2020 the “year of Republican women.” As he proudly announced, more than half of the incoming House Republican members were women or people of color. And some, such as Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel of California, two of the first three Korean American women elected to Congress, were both. (Democrat Marilyn Strickland of Washington is the third.)
McCarthy’s mention of Kim’s Korean immigrant roots and reference to Steel’s was strategic. Party leaders like McCarthy seek to position figures like Kim and Steel as a rebuttal to charges that the GOP is anti-woman, anti-immigrant and White nationalist.
Orange County, which Kim and Steel represent, has been an important conservative bastion since the 1960s, when its voters helped launch politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater to political stardom. Pundits and scholars have tracked the “OC” as a bellwether of demographic changes wrought by shifts in U.S. immigration policy, and its history offers insight into how the Republican Party has made inroads among women and voters of color. Although American conservatism remains largely White, it has slowly but surely become less so.
Before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, immigrants moving to Orange County were overwhelmingly European. Reflecting a national trend, they are now majority Asian and Latino. The county’s Asian American population increased 41 percent between 2000 and 2010 alone, making the county home to the country’s third-largest Asian American population. Today, Asian Americans represent 6 percent of the U.S. population but 20 percent of Orange County’s residents.
U.S. cold wars in Asia and diasporic politics help explain this transformation — as well as why some Asian Americans lean right. Orange County is home to Little Saigon, one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country. In 1992, residents of Westminster, Calif., propelled the first Vietnamese American elected official, Tony Lam, a Republican, to office in their city council. Other Asian Americans followed. Since many arrived as refugees fleeing U.S. wars in Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, Vietnamese Americans have been one of the only Asian ethnic groups where a majority reliably voted Republican because they are strongly anti-communist and socially conservative. Anti-Chinese attitudes have been another important factor. This is slowly changing, as younger, more progressive Vietnamese Americans come of age, but other parts of Asian America may compensate.
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