Mexican-American Democrat, philanthropist Gil Cisneros, and Korean-American Republican, former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, are competing to represent voters in the 39th Congressional District, the most diverse of seven California congressional districts targeted by national Democrats.
Latinos make up a quarter and Asians 22 percent of the district’s electorate, according to Political Data Inc.
The seat, centered in North Orange County but including cities in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, is being vacated by retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who Kim worked for as an Asian community liaison for 20 years.
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.
Nationwide, Democrats are hoping dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and his policies will drive turnout at the Nov. 6 election and hurt Republican candidates.
Cisneros has followed the Democratic playbook – tying Kim to Trump and his policies – while Kim has distanced herself from the president and portrayed herself as an independent-minded Republican who would disagree with Trump when his policies hurt the district.
But Kim, unlike most other GOP candidates, is an immigrant and a woman in a district where two-thirds of the population is Latino and Asian. The district’s Latino voters are mostly Democrats, while the Asian American population is considered up for grabs.
Research has shown Asian voters tend to show more support for candidates of the same race, especially if they are of the same ethnicity, according to the Los Angeles Times; in 2012, nearly two-thirds of Asian American voters in the 39th voted for Chinese-American Democrat Jay Chen over Royce, according to the Times.
A recent survey by Asian American civic organizations and labor groups, conducted between August and October, found Democratic candidates for the House have a strong advantage among Asian American voters – 50 percent to 28 percent – although Vietnamese voters prefer Republicans.
Democratic and Republican voter registration in the 39th district 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.
Kim, 56, served one term in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly representing the 65th Assembly district, which overlaps with the 39th. She also hosted a Korean-language radio show for several years and a talk show on the Korean language television station KBS America. 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.
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.
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.
Cisneros has outspent Kim fivefold, and so far has loaned his campaign $8.8 million, according to the Federal Election Commission website.
Kim has sought to differentiate herself from the President with moderate stances on issues like immigration – emphasizing border security but opposing family separation policies and attempts to curtail family-based migration.
Cisneros says Kim has moderated her views for the election but would vote with Trump in Congress, pointing to one of her first television ads which stated Kim’s family came to the U.S. “legally, and not because we wanted handouts,” as perpetuating views that immigrants depend on welfare and drain government resources.
He has tried to tie her to Republican support for the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and support for the President’s tax bill.
Kim does support the tax bill, but says she would protect Medicare and social security funding and oppose new limits on the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes, which are deeply unpopular.
Cisneros is also recovering from earlier attacks on him after an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the State Assembly, Melissa Fazli, accused him of sexual harassment in May. The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), which supports Republican candidates for the House, paid for online and television ads publicizing those claims and accusing Cisneros of silencing his accuser.
Fazli retracted those claims in October, calling the situation a “misunderstanding” and the CLF was forced to pull those ads. Cisneros’ campaign, which has always adamantly denied Fazli’s allegations, has since circulated ads and mailers about “false and misleading attack ads” by “Young Kim and her DC friends.”
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.