Parties Vie for Asian American Voters in Georgia Senate Runoffs

  • Political influence has grown dramatically in recent years
  • Candidates, advocacy groups look to boost turnout on Jan. 5

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The voters who were decisive in the only competitive congressional district Democrats flipped in November are set to play an integral role in Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections next week.

With control of the chamber on the line, Democrats and Republicans have poured resources into targeting the booming Asian American population in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, where their growing activism has created a force in statewide politics.

Their mobilization helped Rep.-elect Carolyn Bourdeaux (D) win the open 7th District seat last month and President-elect Joe Biden narrowly carry the state, and it will again be critical on Jan. 5.

“She was able to benefit from a lot of increases in turnout among Asian American voters,” state Rep. Sam Park (D), whose district overlaps with the 7th, said of Bourdeaux. “She made the most of a lot of the opportunities that existed in her district.”

Photo by Tami Chappell / AFP
A poll worker checks voters’ forms as they stand in line at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds to cast their ballots on Dec. 14, the first day of early voting in Georgia’s Senate runoffs.

Twice as many Asian Americans voted for Bourdeaux as her Republican opponent, and she won the seat by less than 3 percentage points.

In an interview, Bourdeaux recalled knocking on doors of residents who said they’d never had someone canvass their areas before. She went to mosques, Hindu temples, and Korean churches, and had 800 volunteers who could engage voters in their native language via phone banks and mailers.

“We went out and engaged people in ways they had never been engaged,” she said.

Both parties have attempted to expand upon their outreach in the coinciding Senate elections, in which Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are challenging Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively.

Georgia Democrats, who already had an Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders coalition director during the general election, added a media director and increased the volume of ads and phone banks in languages such as Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Urdu. Ossoff and Warnock have staffers focused on the Asian American community and have held campaign events and roundtable discussions focused on different ethnic groups within the community.

Ossoff held an AAPI meet-and-greet event Thursday morning in Suwanee to distribute packets of campaign materials with voting information — translated into several languages — for attendees to pass out in their communities.

Georgia’s Asian American voters backed Biden over Trump 68% to 30%, according to the American Election Eve Poll. But Republicans note Trump won a higher percentage in 2020 than in 2016, when the same poll showed 19% backed him. The state party launched an Asian Pacific American Advisory Board with members from Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese communities to focus on getting out the vote for Perdue and Loeffler.

“Under President Trump and the Republican Senate, Asian Pacific Americans have seen vast economic growth and the lowest recorded unemployment rates in history,” Georgia GOP Executive Director Stewart Bragg said in a statement, adding that “Asian Pacific Americans in Georgia know what is at stake” in the runoffs.

Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) campaigns with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in Forsyth County last week.

Growing Population

On a recent day of canvassing in a quiet Duluth neighborhood, Esther Lim knocked on the doors of Asian American residents, asking if they planned to vote for Ossoff and Warnock. She carried a script in Korean as well as flyers with six phone numbers to call for more information in English, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean or Vietnamese.

Lim, a program director with the Asian American Advocacy Fund, said she’d seen notable change since she began working with the fund’s nonpartisan arm in 2015, the result of what she called a “perfect storm” of factors. They include a jump in Asian Americans moving to the area, especially in the 7th District. Forsyth and Gwinnett counties have the first- and second-fastest growing Asian American populations in Georgia. Between 2015 and 2019, it increased in Forsyth by 65%.

Another was concern about Trump administration policies, said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund.

“There was a need for our community to get a little more politicized,” she said.

Despite their growing numbers, Asian American voters weren’t initially a strong force in politics, particularly among those who immigrated from non-democratic countries, said Lim.

“A lot of people don’t know anything about the system. A lot of people don’t trust it either,” Lim said. “They see it as like a realm that they don’t belong in, nor do they want to mess with.”

That has changed thanks to groups like the Asian American Advocacy Fund and campaigns including Bourdeaux’s and Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernational run, which have engaged Asian American voters in the past five years. As a result, between 2016 and 2020, the number of Asian voters registered in the Atlanta area grew 55% from 99,000 to 152,000, according to Pew Research.

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock bump elbows at a drive-in rally on Monday outside Atlanta.

Turnout Confusion

At an Ossoff campaign event focused on Asian American voters outside a martial arts studio in Decatur, a supporter raised concerns about voters understanding the importance of voting in the runoff. Ossoff said the key was communicating what was at stake should Democrats fail to win Georgia’s two seats.

After the event, the questioner, Han Pham, said the larger issue she encountered when knocking on doors was confusion about the process, which could lead to a turnout drop.

“It’s a lot of, ‘Why do I need to do this again? Didn’t we already do this? Didn’t Biden already win?’” Pham said. “It’s a huge hurdle right now.”

At the same Ossoff event, Simran Gupta and her brother distributed “Desis for Ossoff, Warnock” signs. She said people in the community don’t see the runoff as a big deal compared to the presidential race. But she said the work being put into the runoff is changing minds.

“The word is being spread about this election, a lot more than previous runoff elections,” she said. “So I’m hopeful.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Heather Rothman at hrothman@bgov.com

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