Once known as a bastion of white establishment conservatives, Orange County’s Republican Party says there’s a new face to the GOP: Asian American women.

Five high-profile Asian women — all Republicans — dominated Orange County races Tuesday night, with three candidates elected to state office and two to the county Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Janet Nguyen, whose family fled Vietnam as refugees, won a seat in the State Senate. Former Congressional aide Young Kim, a South Korean immigrant, and Diamond Bar councilwoman Ling-Ling Chang, a Taiwanese American, were both elected to the State Assembly.

Korean-born Board of Equalization member Michelle Park Steel and Dana Point Mayor Lisa Bartlett, a Japanese-American, also won seats on the Board of Supervisors.

In Orange County and nationwide, party leaders are co-opting Democrats’ strategy of identity politics with hopes of changing perceptions of the GOP as anti-immigrant and unwelcoming to women and minority voters.

“We’re changing the face of the party. When you say Republican Party, people think, middle-aged white male,” said Michelle Steel, who sits on the California Republican Party Board of Directors. “People always portray Asian women as quiet and obedient.”

“We just proved that we are fighters.”

In the lead-up to the election, Steel’s husband, former state GOP chairman Shawn Steel, penned several newspaper editorials making the pitch that his wife, Chang, Nguyen and Kim are a testament to how the party is evolving to incorporate Asian voters with local candidates — all legal immigrants — who look like voters and speak their language.

Statewide, Republicans have failed to have a long-term presence in Hispanic and Asian communities, Shawn Steel said.

“The party needs messengers in these emerging communities – the fact that Michelle, like Young Kim, is in the Korean papers virtually every day is having a profound impact on those voters. And it’ll balance out the monopoly that the Dems have had,” Shawn Steel said.

Michael Schroeder, who served as the state party chairman from late 1997 to 1999, said that while the GOP has tried to build up grassroots minority leaders and candidates, past party leaders haven’t always put the time and funding behind it.

“Everyone has realized that you can’t be disrespectful and you have to be there. If you show up five days before the election with a mariachi band, you look like an idiot,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder says the emergence of Asian candidates in Orange County isn’t a new trend, but the result of demographic changes where successful candidates have naturally emerged.

“The Republicans in Orange County have had, for the last twenty years, numerous Asian American politicians that gave a face to the Republican party,” Schroeder said, pointing to politicians like former Vietnamese American State Assemblyman Van Tran.

Vietnamese Americans, who number more than 183,000 in Orange County, have historically favored the Republican Party. Nearly all of the county’s Vietnamese American elected officials are Republican.

On the other hand, OC Republicans have failed to successfully support and elect Hispanic candidates, he said.

“Lou Correa was originally a Republican as was Loretta Sanchez – but they didn’t get a lot of support in the Republican side,” Schroeder said of the two Democrats. “People who looked like they had real potential turned out really badly, like Carlos Bustamante.”

Bartlett, whose election makes her the first Japanese American to serve on the Board of Supervisors, says she is skeptical of the party’s message of inclusion. She was not among the Asian candidates endorsed by the county GOP.

“When it came time to endorse, we had requested that the party stay neutral, but they went ahead and endorsed my opponent,” Bartlett said, referring to her close race with Republican and former Laguna Niguel mayor Robert Ming.

“So they’re saying we need to diversify the party, and include more women, but…[there’s] a contradiction,” she said.

This isn’t the first time California Republicans have heard a pitch for supporting more minority candidates.

In 1997, political strategist Stuart Spencer, who ran Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign in 1966, wrote a memo to state GOP leaders urging them to embrace Latino candidates, or else commit “political suicide.”

Writing in support of a Latino candidate for state treasurer, Ruben Barrales, who was a San Mateo county supervisor at the time, Spencer warned that the party would “doom itself to a permanent minority” in California politics if it didn’t reach out to Latinos, a rapidly growing population at the time.

“1998 is a time of decision for our party. The choices we will make will impact California and the country easily for the next 10 to 20 years,” Spencer wrote.

But Spencer’s memo was poorly timed.

In 1994, California passed Prop. 187, an initiative to prohibit undocumented immigrants from obtaining health care, public education and other social services. Although it never went into effect and was later ruled unconstitutional, it signaled to many Latinos that the Republican Party would back policies hostile to immigrants.

It did, however, work to stimulate the GOP base over the past two decades, driving voter turnout especially in Orange County where most GOP candidates focused on immigration issues throughout ensuing elections, many times securing an immediate electoral advantage.

Fast-forward two decades, Republicans trail Democrats in favorability among Hispanic voters nationwide by nearly 28 percentage points, according to the Washington Post.

Among Asian voters, 50 percent are Democrats while only 28 percent identify with the GOP. In the 2012 election, three-quarters of Asian Americans voted for President Barack Obama.

In response to the party’s poor performance in the 2012 election, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has called on the party to embrace comprehensive immigration reform and pour $10 million into outreach efforts to minority voters.

Last year, the RNC hired two Asian Americans field directors to spearhead grassroots outreach efforts among Asian voters.

Shawn Steel says Republicans need to make a more compelling pitch to Asian voters on issues like immigration and affirmative action.

“Four million people are waiting in line to come to the United States, to come properly and legally, and they can’t get in because of the border jumpers…and Republicans haven’t been able to weave that [issue] and put it together,” Shawn Steel said.

“I don’t know an Asian family that doesn’t have a hassle with immigration and this kind of unfairness. It’s endemic, and I think Republicans can make a powerful argument to streamline immigration policy for the legals.”

He pointed to a recent bill by Democratic lawmakers to reverse a 16-year ban on affirmative action at public colleges, which drew sharp backlash among some Asian American communities.

An opposition campaign by activists who said the measure would hurt Asian American children’s chances of getting into competitive colleges threatened to campaign against Asian legislators backing the measure and urged voters to register as Republicans.

Still, while Republicans are hoping candidates can be an entry point into Asian communities, it’s hard to say whether this will translate into a long-term strategy.

Orange County’s Asian community is in of itself diverse, with many different languages and cultures. While known for its large Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean populations, the county is also home to growing number of Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Pakistani Americans, according to a recent report. 

Asian Americans as a whole are more likely to lean Democrat than Republican, and are also less likely than the general electorate to identify with a political party, with 35 percent of Asian American voters in California having no party affiliation.

Partisan affiliation also varies by subgroup, with Indian Americans the most heavily Democratic Asian subgroup at 65 percent, while Filipino Americans and Vietnamese Americans are the most evenly split between the two parties.

Young Asian Americans are also both more likely to lean Democrat and register as independent. According to the Pew Survey, among those 18 to 34 years old, 42 percent identify as independents, 31 percent as Democrats and 14 percent as Republicans.

With more than 600,000 Asian Americans in Orange County, a number that continues to grow, both Republicans and Democrats are facing an increasingly diverse constituency.

“You can live in a world where you pretend people don’t have histories. And you can pretend people don’t speak different languages, [but] that’s delusional thinking,” Shawn Steel said. “The old Republican, twentieth century attitude — they don’t understand that California is dynamic and changing. If you don’t expand, you die.”

Voice of OC Senior Writer Tracy Wood contributed to this report. 

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