The battle between a Latino Democrat, Gil Cisneros, and Korean American Republican, Young Kim, for Orange County’s 39th Congressional District seat will be a close race, according to a poll by the New York Times that shows Cisneros barely leading.
The poll found a virtual tie, with Cisneros receiving 47 percent of the vote compared to 46 percent for Kim and 7 percent of voters undecided, although the result could fluctuate by five percent in either direction.
Campaign staff for both Kim and Cisneros were optimistic despite the close race.
Nic Jordan, Cisneros’ campaign manager, said the campaign will continue to focus on turning out women, Latinos and Asian and Pacific Islander voters in the final stretch before the election.
“Voters are motivated and ready to turn out on November 6th to hold President Trump accountable,” Jordan said.
Kim’s campaign manager, Patrick Mocete, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Her campaign consultant, Dave Gilliard, said the New York Times poll overestimates Democratic turnout and said internal polls show Kim winning, although he didn’t provide specific information to back that claim.
Nationwide, Democrats are hoping dissatisfaction with Trump and his policies will drive turnout at the Nov. 6 election and hurt Republican candidates, but in the North Orange County-based 39th district, the picture is not so clear-cut.
Cisneros and Kim are battling to represent the most ethnically diverse of seven Republican-held California seats targeted by Democrats.
Cisneros, 47, a U.S. Navy Veteran and philanthropist, was a supply officer in the Navy for a decade and then a shipping manager at Frito Lay for five years. After he won $266 million in the California lottery in 2010, Cisneros and his wife started a foundation that supports higher education opportunities for Hispanic students.
Cisneros has loaned his campaign $8 million and raised another $2 million, outspending Kim five-fold, according to the Federal Election Commission website. New to the district, Cisneros moved his voter registration from Pico Rivera to Newport Coast in 2015 and then to Yorba Linda, inside the district, last year, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters.
By contrast to his recent wealth, Cisneros often touts his working class roots on the campaign trail. He often talks about how his father, who served in the Vietnam War, suffered health problems related to Agent Orange exposure and later lost his health insurance to highlight his passion for expanding health coverage.
Voters in the 39th have been inundated with mailers calling Kim a “Trump Pawn” and “rubber stamp for Donald Trump.” Cisneros’ campaign purchased the web domain “youngkimforcongress.com” which proclaims “Young Kim: Just Like Donald Trump.” Another ad called Kim “Trump’s apprentice.”
“That’s the most effective argument that any Democratic candidate has against a Republican in this cycle,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican media strategist for the late GOP U.S. Senator, John McCain and currently a professor at the University of Southern California (USC).
Fifty one percent of voters in the 39th district disapprove of Trump’s job performance, while 45 percent approve and four percent of voters are undecided, according to the Times poll.
Forty seven percent of those polled wanted to see Democrats take control of the House while the same percentage want to see Republicans retaining control. Six percent of voters were undecided, according to the poll.
Kim, unlike most other GOP candidates, is an immigrant and a woman in a district where two-thirds of the population is foreign-born, according to data from Political Data Inc.
“She’s probably not going to have much luck separating herself from Trump politically…[but] her personal biography may offer her much greater protection,” Schnur said.
Kim, 56, served one term in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly representing the 65th Assembly district, which overlaps with the 39th Congressional district. Before that she was an Asian community liaison for the 39th district’s retiring incumbent, Republican Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton. She hosted a Korean-language radio program and, more recently, a talk show on the Korean language television station KBS America. Korean Americans make up 4.4 percent of the district’s voters.
Kim was born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. territory of Guam and then Hawaii, before coming to California in 1981 at the age of 19.
Kim has sought to portray herself as a pro-business candidate and independent-minded Republican, stating in one Facebook ad, “Young Kim knows that extreme partisanship will accomplish nothing.”
She has sought to differentiate herself from the President, for example, with moderate stances on immigration policy – emphasizing border security but opposing family separation policies and attempts to curtail family-based migration.
In a television debate taped on Oct. 16, Kim said she would support Trump when it benefits her district and oppose him “in the strongest terms” when it does not.
The 39th district is the most ethnically diverse of the four congressional seats Democrats hope to win this year, with two-thirds of the population Latino and Asian, according to 2017 U.S. Census estimates. The district is largely located in North Orange County and includes parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
Among voters, Latinos make up a quarter and Asians 22 percent of the district’s electorate, according to Political Data Inc. The district’s Latino voters are mostly Democrats, while the Asian American population is considered up for grabs.
Democratic and Republican voter registration is virtually tied at 33.9 percent, according to Political Data Inc., while those who are independents or indicate no party preference make up 30.9 percent.
The district is one of seven California seats, and about two dozen nationwide, which are currently held by Republicans but voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Clinton won by almost 9 percent in the 39th District.
Election experts such as the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the race as a toss-up.
Republican registration statewide has been falling for decades, especially as the state’s Latino population has grown. Now the state GOP has turned its attention to Asian voters as a potential area of growth, pointing to the success of Vietnamese American elected officials like State Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Fountain Valley), Taiwanese American State Sen. Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) and Korean American Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel.
Both Kim and Cisneros’ campaigns say they’re doing substantial outreach to Asian voters and have bilingual staff who speak Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, and Vietnamese.
California State University, Fullerton political science professor Stephen Stambough said the district’s changing demographics and registration will alter the region’s political dynamics beyond the congressional races.
“I think the district is going to be interesting for quite a few years now, regardless of who wins in the next couple of weeks. It’s a competitive district now,” said Stambough. “Not just at that level, but at the lower levels too — assembly, supervisor, waterboards — it’s becoming more of a politically competitive area.”
Can Kim Distance Herself from Trump?
He has accused Kim of adopting more moderate stances when politically expedient, pointing to her first television ad which stated Kim’s family came to the U.S. “legally, and not because we wanted handouts,” as perpetuating the view that immigrants depend on welfare and drain government resources.
At the Oct. 16 TV debate, Kim accused Cisneros of putting words in her mouth, and qualified her support of the President’s tax bill with pledges to protect Medicare and social security and oppose new limits on the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes.
“She differs from Trump on many issues: Young Kim opposes tariffs, supports free trade and opposes the child separation policy for undocumented immigrants,” said Gilliard, Kim’s campaign consultant.
Kim has said she’d fight efforts to restrict “chain migration,” when U.S. citizens sponsor relatives to come to the U.S. Kim’s sister sponsored her and her parents. Like Cisneros, she supports a path to citizenship through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Jordan noted that while Kim has recently opposed the Trump Administration’s policy separating illegal immigrant children from their parents, she didn’t speak out on it until the day after Trump reversed his position.
Attacks on Cisneros
Early in the campaign, national Republicans, through the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), heavily publicized allegations of sexual harassment against Cisneros that emerged in May, running television ads accusing Cisneros of silencing his accuser.
But the CLF was forced to pull those ads earlier this month when Cisneros’ accuser, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the State Assembly, Melissa Fazli, retracted the claims that she had adamantly defended for months, calling the situation a “misunderstanding.”
John Thomas, a strategist who represented Republican county Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who was a candidate in the 39th district for the June primary election, said the issue was damaging for Cisneros.
“Sexual harassment…it’s a deadly negative. There was a reason why Young Kim was so solidly ahead for so many weeks,” said Thomas.
Jordan disagreed, saying voters the campaign has interacted with were skeptical of the claims and more interested in talking about issues like expanding healthcare and how the Republican tax reform bill will affect them.
“Anecdotally I can tell you that, most often, when we send out volunteers door-to-door they wanted to talk about health care or the tax bill or Medicare,” Jordan said. “The allegations rarely came up at the doors, and when it did, they were kind of skeptical and wanted to hear the campaign’s side.”
Jordan said the campaign hasn’t conducted internal polling since the retraction of the ads, but pointed to a poll they conducted days before the ads were pulled. That poll showed the race was within the margin of error.
Since the CLF pulled the harassment ads, Thomas said, Republicans have targeted Cisneros for his opposition to Proposition 6, which would repeal a statewide gas tax that increases vehicle fees and imposes a 12 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and 20 cents per gallon of diesel. Supporters say the tax will raise $5.4 billion a year for road and transportation projects.
The 39th Congressional District also overlaps with the 29th State Senate District, where former State Sen. Josh Newman was recalled in June for his support of the gas tax. Chang, the Republican who previously held that seat, was elected to replace Newman.
Republicans are banking on the gas tax repeal turning out more of their voters.
“They’re doing it because that district has overlap with Josh Newman’s district, and voters have already responded to the gas tax attack,” Thomas said. “It’s by no means as potent [a disqualifier] as sexual harassment.”
The ads, which dub Cisneros as “Gas Tax Gil,” have run on television and at gas station pumps.
Jordan said Cisneros opposed the gas tax from the outset but is also against its repeal, because the funding is already being used to pay for construction and create jobs.
“To repeal the gas tax would put people out of work, and affect our local economy,” Jordan said. “Gil wants to fight for a bipartisan infrastructure bill that will bring federal dollars to the district.”
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