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Asian-Americans take higher profile in congressional races

The 2012 campaign cycle marks the highest number of viable Asian-American candidates ever – and not just on the West Coast. Their success could help Democrats regain ground in the House.

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Many of the districts Asian-Americans are vying to represent do not have Asian-American majorities, a trend some note as another sign of progress.

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“A lot of people think if there aren’t enough people who look like you, you can’t get elected – that’s nonsense. You can win the people’s trust anywhere,” says Gautam Dutta, executive director of the Asian American Action Fund, which backs Asian-American Democrats running for Congress.

Two-term Rep. Judy Chu (D) of California, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) and the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress, says that Asian-Americans have historically faced difficulty in running because political networks for Asian-Americans are still developing.  Moreover, the relatively small number of Asian-Americans in elected office had in the past made it harder for newcomers to compete, she says.

“Right now we are developing that infrastructure,” says Ms. Chu, pointing to the caucus’s recently launched CAPAC Leadership PAC. “It’s a different world today.”

Six-term Rep. Michael Honda (D) of California has long spearheaded efforts to boost the electoral prospects of Asian-American candidates. In addition to mobilizing Asian-Americans to vote, he’s acting as an Asian-American surrogate in key congressional races and for the Obama campaign.

For Mr. Honda, the motivation is partly personal. As a toddler, he and his parents were sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II, an experience he says highlighted for him the importance of having Asian-American representation in Congress.

“It took about 60 years for us to get an apology from our own government,” he says. Now, "we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

When Asian-Americans run for Congress, voters "start to look past our perceived foreignness and look at us as participating Americans who can contribute to this country,” he adds.

Challenger Duckworth, the Democrat challenging Rep. Joe Walsh (R) of Illinois, says that Asian-Americans from Midwestern areas like hers represent constituencies that have traditionally been shut out.

“Places like here have never had Asian-Americans elected to office, not even to state office, or even an alderman,” Duckworth says. “There’s a good chunk of the population that’s not getting all of its concerns represented.”

Those concerns may be magnified as the Asian-American population continues to grow. Thirty-six percent of new immigrants to the US were Asians in 2010, compared with 19 percent a decade ago, according to a Pew Research Center report in June.

According to the report, Asian-Americans tend to vote Democratic, though UCLA's Nakanishi notes they are not as solidly liberal as other minority groups, such as African-Americans and Latino-Americans. Of the 30 Asian-Americans who filed to run in the 2012 cycle, 24 are Democrats, according to the APAICS.

In 2008, about 60 percent of the Asian-American population voted for Barack Obama. In November, the Asian-American vote could be decisive in battleground states like Nevada and Virginia, says Ms. Chan of APAICS.

"We’re a force to be reckoned with in the coming election and for years to come,” she says.


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