Michelle Steel, Republican candidate for California’s 45th Congressional District, speaks during the California GOP fall convention in Indian Wells on Sept. 7, 2019. The fight for the 45th District seat evolved into a hostile confrontation between Steel, a South Korean immigrant looking for a second term in Congress, and Democrat Jay Chen, a Navy reservist and the son of immigrants from Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

Rafu Staff Report

With control over Congress hanging in the balance, two Asian American Republicans in Orange County retained their seats in the Nov. 8 midterms, besting Democatic challengers who are also Asian American.

In the 40th Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Young Kim (R-Diamond Bar) finished well ahead of Democrat Dr. Asif Mahmood, 126,386 (57.6%) to 93,136 (42.4%). Kim, who is serving her first term, is one of the first Korean American women in Congress. Mahmood, who immigrated from Pakistan, is a member of the California Medical Board.

In a Facebook message to her supporters, Kim said, “Thank you to all of Team Young who spread the word to hundreds of thousands of voters and propelled us to victory. Your support means the world. I will fight every day to be your common-sense voice in Congress, break through the partisan gridlock and deliver results for CA40.”

Mahmood said via Facebook, “Thank you to everyone who has made this race special and been a part of our team. When I started this race, I could never have imagined what we’d build. I’m so grateful for the community of people from all corners of our country who stepped up to make this happen.”

In the 45th Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Huntington Beach) finished ahead of Democrat Jay Chen, 90,389 (53.5%) to 78,622 (46.5%), and has been declared the winner. Steel, who is also one of the first Korean American women in Congress, is serving her first term. Chen is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves and a trustee of Mt. San Antonio Community College.

“I am humbled that voters have given me the opportunity to continue to fight for them in Washington, D.C.,” Steel said via Facebook on Monday. “I have been firm in my commitment to deliver for Southern California, and will continue to work to lower taxes, stop inflation, and keep the American Dream alive for working-class families. Thank you to my family, friends, staff, and volunteers who have worked diligently the past year to deliver our message to voters and secure this win.”

Chen said in a statement on Nov. 15, “I am grateful to my supporters in California’s 45th Congressional District for this opportunity to serve them and our country. We always knew that this would be an uphill battle given the stakes, and the amount of special interest money spent against us. I could not be more proud of the organizers, volunteers and community groups that came together to fight for this worthy cause.

“While Michelle Steel won this election, the attacks on my patriotism because of my Asian heritage were unbecoming of a United States representative. I ran my campaign on the issues of lowering costs for working families, protecting a woman’s right to choose, and passing common-sense legislation to end the scourge of gun violence.

“My opponent refused to debate me, refused to hold town halls, refused on-camera interviews with news media, and ran a campaign of fear and division to hide her voting record. While this race has ended, my work to ensure that California’s 45th Congressional District has a representative that will fight for working families continues.”

The 45th District contest was designated as a “race to watch” by Cal Matters because Democrats hoped to flip the seat. Voter registration there is 37.8% Democratic, 32.3% Republican, and 24.5% no party preference. However, in the June primary, Steel received 48.2% of the vote while Chen received 43.1%.

The 45th, which includes Little Saigon, is one of the nation’s most heavily Asian American districts; about 25% of eligible voters are of Asian descent.

In some ways, the race was like others between Democrats and Republicans.

“This race gives Orange County voters a clear choice between pro-Trump, anti-LGBTQ+ extremist Michelle Steel and pro-democracy, pro-equality champion Jay Chen,” Equality California Executive Director Tony Hoang said during the campaign. “While Michelle Steel pals around with insurrectionists like Marjorie Taylor Green, Jay Chen is focused on serving our country, protecting democracy and delivering common-sense results for his neighbors. Jay has been a consistent ally to LGBTQ+ Californians, and we are confident he will be an important voice in our work to achieve full, lived equality for all.”

A Republican website called Chen “a left-wing liberal who is just a rubber stamp for Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and their liberal agenda.”

On Election Day, Steel said, “Today we can save the future of our country. Get out and vote to end failed Democratic policies and restore the American Dream!”

But in an effort to appeal to anti-communist sentiment in Little Saigon — where many residents are refugees from the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975 — Steel’s campaign depicted Chen as a tool of the Chinese government. Some of Steel’s ads included doctored images of Chen holding up the Communist Manifesto or with a backdrop of Chinese currency bearing the face of Mao Zedong.

The allegations stemmed from Chen’s support of the Confucius Institute, a cultural and educational program backed by China, as a member of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District Board of Education in 2010. The program was initially supported by the U.S. government, but concerns were later raised that it was spreading propaganda for the Chinese government.

A Vietnamese-language ad claimed that Chen “invited China into our children’s classrooms.” A commercial featured two actors playing Chinese spies, proclaiming that Chen is “one of us.”

Viet Fact Check, a project of PIVOT (Progressive Vietnamese American Organization), rejected the idea that Chen is a communist, noting that in 2010, the Confucius Institutes were “a program supported by President George W. Bush and President Obama, as a way for American students to learn Mandarin.”

“Steel also has a history of falsely accusing her opponents of being communists,” Viet Fact Check said. “In 2020, she falsely accused then [Democratic] Congressman Harley Rouda of being pro-Ho Chi Minh.”

Lindsay Barnes, Chen’s campaign manager, said in a statement, “In the span of only a few days, Michelle Steel — who has never worn a military uniform — preyed upon generational trauma in the Vietnamese community, pushed a patently untrue narrative that a Taiwanese American is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, and attempted to defile a decorated Navy veteran’s reputation and allegiance to the United States.”

Prior to the primary, Steel — who speaks Korean, Japanese and English — accused Chen of anti-immigrant bias when he said that one needed an interpreter to understand her remarks. Chen did not apologize but said he was referring to her “convoluted talking points” rather than her accent.

According to the Associated Press, Republicans have locked down 217 House seats as of Tuesday, with Democrats claiming 209. The tally includes races in which the winner’s party is certain, such as races between two Democrats. It takes 218 seats to control the House.

Should Democrats fail to protect their fragile majority, Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield would be in line to replace Speaker Pelosi of San Francisco.

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