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US midterm elections 2018

History in the mailing? Southern California congressional race featuring Korean-American Young Kim comes down to mail-in ballots

  • Young Kim, the Republican candidate, would be the first Korean-American woman elected to the US Congress
  • Kim leads with 51.3 per cent, but provisional votes must be counted before a winner is declared
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 2:57am

California’s Congressional District 39 was one of the tightest races of the 2018 midterm elections, and even with the votes tallied, the outcome remains far from clear.

But figures compiled by the Associated Press suggest that the Republican candidate, former state assemblywoman Young Kim, has 51.3 per cent of the vote – a narrow lead that, should it hold, would set her up to become the first Korean-American woman to be elected to the US Congress.

In a midterms election cycle that has resulted in wins by an unprecedented number of women – especially women of colour – this could be another first.

Kim won 76,956 votes, just 3,879 more than the Democratic candidate, Gil Cisneros, who won 73,077 votes, or 48.7 per cent. These numbers, however, do not take into account an undetermined number of provisional and mail-in ballots that could arrive as late as Friday.

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District 39, which represents parts of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties, became a race to watch after its Republican incumbent, Ed Royce, who has represented it since 1994, announced earlier this year that he would be stepping down.

Though Royce has typically won his re-elections by comfortable margins, the once reliably Republican district is changing. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, took the district by 8 percentage points over Republican Donald Trump.

Royce’s departure put the district into play as one of 23 Congressional districts that Democrats sought to flip in their bid to regain control of the US House of Representatives – one of four such districts in Southern California alone.

Kim, an immigrant from South Korea, worked for Royce for two decades as an aide and an Asian-American liaison, building deep ties to community groups throughout the district. Royce, who was popular with some of his Asian-American constituents as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, quickly endorsed her candidacy. All of this was advantageous in a district that is 30 per cent Asian-American.

For Angeline Huang, a Chinese-American Republican voter, Royce’s endorsement, Kim’s Republican bona fides, and her Korean-American background were all equally important. “We have to unite as Asian-Americans,” Huang said, before adding that she appreciated how “Kim is a real Republican”.

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CA-39 is one of 27 districts across the country where Asian-Americans are a large enough presence (8 per cent or higher) to have a significant impact on the election outcome, according to AAPI Data, which tracks statistics on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

But this assumes that the group is one voting bloc – which, of course, is far from the case.

Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in America, according to the Pew Research Centre, with the number of Asian-American voters in the US expected to double by 2040.

With that in mind, politicians have increasingly recognised the importance of engaging the Asian-American vote, though they have not always been effective at reaching them.

CA-39 has been an exception. Both campaigns focused extensive voter-engagement efforts at the district’s diverse Asian-American communities, employing dedicated Asian-American and Pacific Islander liaisons, coordinating with community organisations, running native-language advertising.

Ultimately, though, how Asian-American voters chose to vote, at least in this district, came down to the issues, rather than long-held assumptions that ethnicity and cultural affinity would be enough.

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“Yes we’re both Korean-American, but I don’t want her to represent me,” Irene Kim, a Democrat and recent college graduate, said, citing the candidate’s silence on gun control as one of the many issues on which they disagree. Irene Kim voted for Cisneros on Election Day.

Instead, for representation, she looks across the country to another tight race – that of the former Obama administration official Andy Kim in New Jersey’s Congressional District 3. “He could also be the first Korean-American in Congress!” she said, hopefully.

Actually, Jay Kim, a Southern California Republican originally from Seoul, was the first Korean-American man to be elected to the House, serving three terms in the 1990s.

Andy Kim, a Democrat, also holds a slim lead over his opponent, the Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur. Though Kim declared himself the winner on Wednesday night, MacArthur declined to concede – another race that won’t be decided until all the mail-in and provisional votes are counted.