BY MAI NGUYEN DO
Traditionally, the Asian American electorate has often been overlooked. It is relatively young and includes many who are foreign-born. Since Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group, the population is solidifying as a small but noticeable voting bloc. Although Asian Americans used to vote Republican, most notably in presidential elections in 1992 and 1996, they have progressively shifted towards the Democratic party. Strong preferences for the Democratic party are evident not only in voter preferences, but also in the party affiliation of Asian Americans running for Congress.
With a thriving population has come a growing number of Asian American candidates pursuing public office. Although much attention has been focused on Asian American candidates for Congress like Gina Ortiz Jones and Kenneth Mejia, there are even more Asian Americans seeking election to state legislature seats. State legislatures often address matters much more relevant to the average American like water districts, local school funding, vehicle fees, and the lines at the neighborhood Department of Motor Vehicles office. Politicos and political scientists nationwide watched not only the battle for Congress, but also attempts by statewide Democratic parties to regain control of state governments, which traditionally lean conservative regardless of state.
This year, a record number of Asian Americans ran for seats in state legislatures across the country. With only one race pending, 72.3 percent of these candidates won election. Those elected will be able to directly take on controversial issues in the Asian American community: data disaggregation, police brutality, affirmative action, local police cooperation with ICE, history curricula. Here’s how the 137 Asian American state legislature candidates on the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot break down.
Asian American state legislative candidates were overwhelmingly Democratic
75.7 percent of the 136 Asian American candidates identified are Democrats and 20.6 percent are Republicans. Out of the five third party candidates, two are Green Party candidates, two are Independent Republican and one is Libertarian.
Since most Asian American state legislative candidates are from Hawaii and California, it’s not so surprising that a majority of them are Democrats. Still, the partisan makeup of Asian American state legislative candidates is striking, and the numbers are part of a continued trend of Asian Americans shifting more toward the Democratic Party over time. In 2016, the National Asian American Survey found that 57 percent of Asian Americans identified as Democrats, 24 percent as Republicans and 18 percent as independents.
The discrepancies between the percentages of registered independents and the amount of third-party candidates are likely a result of barriers to official candidacy for third party candidates.
Most state legislative candidates were Chinese or Japanese
Disaggregating the Asian American state legislative candidates by ethnicity reveals representational disparities among ethnic groups. Most candidates mentioned their specific ethnicity in interviews or released biographical information to news outlets, but a few were only self-identified or identified by media as Asian American. Although East Asians are now only a little over one third of the Asian American population according to AAPI Data, the majority of the candidates – about 58 percent – are of East Asian descent. About 23 percent of state legislative candidates are Southeast Asian and 14 percent are South Asian, compared to 27% and 33%, respectively, of the resident population.
The ratio of challengers to incumbents is fairly healthy
Although there are slightly more incumbents than challengers, the introduction of almost the same amount of challengers in different races demonstrates that the Asian American share of candidacies for state legislatures is growing. This follows current trends in increases in the number of challengers overall at the federal level. It also shows some evidence contrary to common hesitance from minority individuals – particularly black candidates, according to Andra Gillespie in Whose Black Politics: Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership – to challenge entrenched incumbents.
While diverse Asian American representation at both the state and federal level remains lacking, the 137 Asian American candidates that pursued state legislature seats this year are part of a larger project to build an Asian American electoral bench. Organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies have been working to improve Asian American representation at not only the federal level, but also at the local level as well. As more Asian Americans are elected to local and state offices, more will eventually run for and win federal or gubernatorial seats.
The challenge to diversify among Asian American candidates, however, remains an issue that the larger Asian American population will have to contend with. Whether these disparities between East Asian American candidates and other Asian American candidates will decrease over time or continue is still yet to be determined.
Since there is not one definitive, succinct list of Asian American candidates pursuing any level of government, this list of Asian American candidates running for state legislature seats during the 2018 general election had to be manually derived from various sources, primarily from Ballotpedia data and from candidates’ campaign websites. In some cases, other sources such as news articles and social media posts were used to identify the candidates as Asian American. Although there are some Asian American state legislature incumbents – and challengers – anticipated to be on 2019 general election ballots, in keeping with the boundaries of selecting only 2018 general election candidates, the list of candidates aggregated for this particular dataset does not include candidates for 2019 elections in states with off-year elections or states with staggered elections for certain legislative seats. It also does not include candidates that may have pursued seats in special elections during the prior part of 2018.
After sifting through Ballotpedia data and the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac, I’ve identified 136 Asian American state legislature candidates on the 2018 general election ballot and organized them into separate entries per candidate. Each entry includes the candidate’s name, the state in which they are campaigning for office, their party affiliation, whether they are an incumbent, whether they have previously held a different public office before their 2018 campaign, their ethnicity, and whether they won election.
Mai Nguyen Do (@DoNguyenMai) is a Vietnamese American researcher and poet from Santa Clarita, California. She currently researches elections and policy for Courage Campaign. Her first book, Ghosts Still Walking, is available from Platypus Press and her second book, Battlefield Blooming, is forthcoming from Sahtu Press in 2019.