In a meeting with local reporters, Republican U.S. Representative Joe Heck made clear he doesn’t support a Senate-passed immigration bill in its entirety. One provision he did highlight, though, was an exemption from visa limitations for children of Filipino veterans of World War II.
As it happens, Nevada, Heck’s state, is also home to the fastest growing Filipino population in the U.S. -- and many of them live in his congressional district.
Heck’s method of communicating his stand on the immigration debate was also distinct from most of his Republican House colleagues. Two Asian and two Hispanic news organizations were the only invitees to what he called an “ethnic media” question-and-answer session last week.
The unusual meeting with the congressman in his office south of the Las Vegas strip is the type of event Republican leaders say must become routine if the party is to boost its standing with the expanding Asian-American voting bloc.
“One of the problems is that so many folks realize four to six months before an election that they need to do ethnic outreach,” said Heck, who has represented the suburban and rural 3rd congressional district since 2011. “For us, it is part of the everyday process and that’s where we need to get as a party.”
Heck, 51, will need the support of both Hispanics and Asians as he seeks re-election in 2014. Last week, Democrat Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a Las Vegas political trainer and daughter of a former congressman, announced plans to challenge him.
Among House Republicans, Heck represents the most heavily Asian district that’s also in a presidential battleground state, data compiled by Bloomberg shows. The district, which President Barack Obama narrowly won in 2012, is 12.1 percent Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Republican Party’s problem with Asians is in some ways bigger than its more-documented challenges with Hispanics. While exit polls showed Obama had a 44-percentage-point advantage among Hispanics in the 2012 election, his 47-percentage-point Asian margin over Republican Mitt Romney was even greater.
There were roughly three times as many Hispanic voters as Asian voters in November’s election, although Asians are the nation’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group and are projected to play an increasing role in politics. Health care and education are key issues for them, as are taxes, giving Republicans an opening of their own.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California-Riverside political scientist and director of the National Asian-American Survey, said Asians over the last two decades have shown the biggest shift in presidential voting patterns among any demographic group. They doubled their vote share for Democratic presidential candidates to 62 percent in 2008 from 31 percent in 1992, before growing to 73 percent in 2012, he said.
Former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, cited Asian-American demographics as he made the case recently that the group should have a closer affiliation with Republicans.
“Here’s a group that has higher intact families, more entrepreneurial, higher-than-average incomes, higher college graduation rates, and they support President Obama’s re-election,” Bush said at a June 13 Bipartisan Policy Center forum on immigration in Washington.
“Asian-Americans are actually the canary in the coal mine, I believe, for Republicans,” he said. “If we’ve lost connectivity to emerging voters -- not because of our policies so much, but because we are not engaged in issues of importance to them -- I think we pay a price.”
Before Obama’s first election in 2008, Republicans were competitive for the Asian vote. As recently as 2004, Republican President George W. Bush received 44 percent of the Asian vote in his race against now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The movement toward the Democrats started with former President Bill Clinton, who made public efforts to woo Asians, including nominating the first Asian-American, Norman Mineta (MINVP), to the Cabinet. Should Hillary Clinton run for the presidency in 2016, the former secretary of state could benefit from that base of support.
“The Clinton family has been good friends with the Asian community,” said Robert Young, chairman of the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce.
Just west of the city’s towering casinos lies the heart of the Asian community, which is mostly Filipino and Chinese. Along dozens of blocks of Spring Mountain Road, Asian restaurants, markets and other businesses bustle with locals and tourists.
It’s rare for a Republican to represent a district with such a large Asian-American concentration. There are 54 districts where Asians account for at least 10 percent of the population and Democrats hold 44 of them, the Bloomberg compiled data shows.
Heck, who employs an American of Filipino descent, Eric Guideng, to work solely on community outreach, has strong support from those voters because he has done a good job of staying connected to them, Young said.
“He’s doing extremely well with the Asian community because the first time he was elected, he called us,” he said. “Whenever he gets a chance, he comes to my chamber and that kind of relationship is going to get this kind of swing vote.”
Among the nine states where both 2012 presidential campaigns focused most of their attention, Nevada has the largest Asian-American population, at 7.7 percent. That’s partly a reflection of its proximity to California, where 13.9 percent of the population is Asian.
In last year’s election, the Nevada Asian vote was narrowly split between Obama and Romney. Asian-Americans represented 5 percent of the 2012 state electorate and among the group Obama beat Romney, 50 percent to 47 percent.
Stronger Asian outreach was a central point in a report released in March by the Republican National Committee that took an introspective look at the party’s 2012 election losses.
“Inclusion efforts can no longer be lip service, but need to be an organized effort within the community,” the report said.
Persuading party activists and politicians to live by that message has proved difficult.
One recent example came in Virginia when Republicans Tom and Jeannemarie Davis tried to encourage more Asian-Americans to attend a state party convention in May, including providing busing for them, to support her bid for lieutenant governor.
“The hostility from the party establishment was incredible,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who represented counties in northern Virginia with Asian-American populations. “We should be a welcoming party. We were taken aback by the reaction.”
Some of the prospective Republican delegates were denied credentials because their current addresses didn’t match their voter registrations, said Davis. Of those who did qualify, many of whom were seniors, they found themselves seated in the “rafters” of the convention hall, he said.
Asians should be a demographic “sweet spot” for the Republican Party, said Davis. “They are strivers and upward-mobile and small business people who are not happy about high taxes and regulations,” he said. “We’re not talking to them and they are all around us.”
Earlier this year, the RNC hired two Asians to boost outreach. Jason Chung is a new communications director for Asian engagement and Stephen Fong is an Asian field director.
Finding issues where the Republican base and Asian-Americans see eye-to-eye could prove more challenging, said Ramakrishnan, the Asian polling expert.
“Asian-American voters support the Affordable Care Act and believe in the social safety net,” Ramakrishnan said, citing polling he’s overseen on the Obama-backed health-care law.
Representative Ed Royce, whose southern California district has the highest proportion of Asian-Americans among any held by a Republican, pointed to his fellow Californian, Ronald Reagan, who he said aggressively reached out to Asian voters during his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.
“We need to relearn that lesson,” said Royce, whose district is 28.3 percent Asian-American. “We got away from the grassroots. Much of that withered. One of things that happened is that the techniques moved from the door-to-door and community-based campaigning to more of a campaign conducted top down through media.”
Heck counts on the support of constituents such as Arthur DeJoya, a Filipino who lives in his district, leans Republican and says the party should talk more about education and small-business issues.
“Education is a very key part of the culture,” DeJoya said. “A lot of us are small-business owners and care about regulations and taxes.”
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