OC elects conservative Korean Americans to US House. GOP has invested in Asian candidates for generations

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Two Orange County Republicans were voted into the House during this year’s election, making big waves for the GOP. Michelle Steel and Young Kim will be the first-ever Korean American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. KCRW talks about this with regular contributor Gustavo Arellano.

KCRW: Orange County has been trending blue in recent election cycles. Did these wins come as a surprise? The margins were tight.

Gustavo Arellano: “There is no surprise at all. These were two Congressional seats that historically have been Republican going back to the 1980s. The previous congressman, Harley Rouda and the 45th [Congressional district], and Gil Cisneros and the 39th [Congressional district], barely eked out [a win] in 2018. And now, 2020. The new congresspeople, Michelle Steel in the 45th who beat Harley Rouda, and Young Kim who beat Gil Cisneros, barely won. So these are like just flip-flop districts.” 

What kind of campaigns did Steel and Kim run? Were they sticking to Trump-style agendas and politics, or did they take more moderate positions? 

“Two completely different campaigns. Young Kim has always marked herself as a Republican, but a relatively moderate Republican. She actually criticized Donald Trump earlier this year for his very restrictive immigration policies saying, ‘Look, I'm a Korean immigrant myself. I represent a district that's very diverse — a third white, a third Latino, and a third Asian. So there's a lot of people in my district who care about these issues.’” 

[Her] campaign ads basically pegged Gil Cisneros as someone who really didn't do anything. Cisneros, nothing against them, but he was very quiet. He wasn't a superstar like Katie Porter. So even though he was a winner, he had the uphill battle. 

On the other hand, Michelle Steel, complete Trumper, has met with Donald Trump. In her district, which encompasses Huntington Beach, she also took the very bold stance of thinking coronavirus wasn't a big deal. Being against coronavirus, thinking it's fake news, could get you elected in Orange County and Michelle Steel's proof of it.”

Michelle Steel has gotten criticism about her lax response to the coronavirus, but OC has embraced her. How do you explain that? 

“It's Orange County. Even though it's purple, even though it's been far better and less crazy than before, you still have those pockets. With Michelle Steel, what she [thinks] basically is, ‘Who cares about the coronavirus? We cannot let our economy die. If people get sick about it, oh well. If you don't want to wear your mask, then that's up to you. It's all about freedom.’ Meanwhile, she doesn't care that all these other people have been dying at an inordinate rate, that they shouldn't have been if people actually wore their masks.

How has Young Kim responded to the coronavirus pandemic? 

“She has been very quiet and it makes sense because Michelle Steel was the supervisor of Orange County. She had a lot of responsibility on this matter. Young Kim, she was not an elected official. She's basically been campaigning for the past two years to get back into office. She has not said anything that has been beyond the pale like so many other Republicans in Orange County. So any criticisms that people had about her and coronavirus, they fell flat.”

The GOP has been investing in Asian American candidates in hopes of diversifying its ranks. Will this continue in OC? 

“Absolutely. If the GOP has any future in Orange County, it’s not going to be with Latinos, who they alienated a long, long time ago. They have been investing in Asian candidates now for at least two generations — 1970s and 80s, it was Japanese Americans. It goes along with whatever the ascendant Asian American group is. During the 90s, right up until the 2000s, it was Vietnamese Americans. Now, it's Korean Americans. 

… It was just last decade that the city of Irvine had its first two Korean American candidates. Now Irvine just got another Korean American councilwoman in Tammy Kim. Fullerton just got their own Korean American council member as well, so Korean Americans are ascendant right now in politics. And the GOP, they had first dibs, but now the Democrats are going to see if [they] could find a way to get more Koreans.”

These are the first two Korean American women in Congress, and there's a big Vietnamese population in the OC. Did they win over that vote? I'm just wondering who really voted for Kim and Steel.

“Asian Americans, especially Korean Americans, voted in droves. Even if they were not necessarily aligned with their politics, they’re proud, it's one of their country's people, so they're going to get votes. Young Kim was going to get more just because the 39th district is far more Asian. In the 45th, Michelle Steel got a lot of white voters because she's very much aligned with the GOP, and her husband, Sean Steel, is a longtime GOP bigwig in Orange County.”

Is that turnout historic? Have Koreans come out to vote in droves in the OC in previous elections?

“That's definitely historic. The fact that they were able to elect congresswomen, this has never happened before in the United States. There's one other Korean American woman who won up around the Tacoma area, but that's about it. So again, you're going to see now if it was the Vietnamese political machine of last decade. I guarantee you're going to have more and more Korean Americans coming up in Irvine, in Fullerton, and also Buena Park, the main epicenters. And yeah, even though again, I've criticized Michelle Steel, congratulations to her along with Young Kim for making history.”