WESTMINSTER, Calif. — Chi Charlie Nguyen, the vice mayor of this Orange County city, chokes up when he talks about how he immigrated to the United States four decades ago as a young teen.
“I was trying to get my life back—I had completely lost my childhood under the communist regime from 1975 to 1980,” he told RealClearPolitics.
Nguyen’s father had fought against the Viet Cong and was imprisoned afterward when the South fell to communist rule. As the oldest child of four, Nguyen stopped going to school so he could work and help his mother and their family survive.
At just 15, he managed to escape Vietnam by boat, eventually arriving in Southern California. Volunteers and churches took him in under a policy supported by three successive presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan), allowing hundreds of thousands of Vietnam refugees to resettle in the United States.
After Nguyen, now 56, arrived here, he put himself through high school and earned an engineering degree from California State University, Fullerton, and was hired by aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas, which later merged with Boeing.
When he became politically active several years ago, Nguyen said the GOP was a natural fit because the party shares his more traditional values and belief in self-reliance. Besides, most fellow Vietnamese Americans he knew were Republican. Recently though, he’s worried that Democrats have made inroads with the younger generation.
“We need to educate our children to love this country,” he said. “For five years I lived under the communist regime. I know exactly who they are, and the Republican Party is against the communist ideology.”
Nguyen is telling his story while standing outside the Republican National Committee’s first voter outreach center of the 2022 cycle and its first Asian Pacific American Community Center, an effort to connect with and mobilize Asian voters.
Its location is no accident. Tucked into a strip mall next to Quan Moi café and Tan Binh Pharmacy, the storefront is in the heart of Orange County’s “Little Saigon,” home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam. It has a population of nearly 189,000 spread over three square miles in the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove, roughly 45 miles south of Los Angeles.
With early outreach, Republicans hope to build on last year’s success in turning out Asian voters in the area—ahead of the autumn recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and in plenty of time to register and motivate voters for the November 2022 congressional midterm elections.
In 2020, Republicans surprised most political forecasters by reclaiming four of the seven California congressional seats they lost in 2018. Two of the four winning GOP candidates are Asian women, Reps. Michelle Steel (pictured) and Young Kim.
With Steel as the candidate, Asian voters had an 89% turnout rate in the district in the 2020 election, an increase of nearly 14 percentage points over 2016. Statewide, Asian GOP voter turnout was up nearly 13 points from 2016 to 2020, edging Asian Democratic voter turnout, which increased by 12.1 points.
It’s one of the few areas where Republicans are making significant headway in this mostly blue state. GOP voter registrations had nosedived in recent years to nearly half of Democratic registrations. The situation had become so bad that new voters indicating no party preference had recently exceeded those checking the Republican box. California hasn’t elected a GOP candidate to a statewide office since 2006 when Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected as governor.
“Offices like this are so instrumental, because as we engage with communities and we hear the issues that matter to them, and we represent them as a Republican Party, we show that we are a party of diversity, we are a party for every American,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told a crowd gathered for the center’s opening Friday.
While the Republican delegation in Congress is heavily male and white, California’s is far more diverse. Last year, Mike Garcia, a first-generation Mexican American and former Navy fighter pilot, won an open seat for Republicans in a district just north of Los Angeles, while David Valadao, whose parents were born in Portugal, won back the Central Valley seat he lost in 2018.
The California Republican Party is also reflecting the state’s diversity in its leadership. Jessica Millan Patterson, the state party chairwoman, is Latina and her co-chair, Peter Kuo, is Chinese American.
When it was Patterson’s time to speak, she noted that — until Garcia did it last year — the GOP hadn’t picked up an open Democratic seat in the state since 1998. The party hadn’t flipped a Democrat-controlled House seat since 1994 but managed to do so three times last cycle.
“These victories didn’t happen by accident—it’s because of the work we did early on so we could be successful,” she said. “We showed up in neighborhoods and communities that had been neglected by our party over the years.”
In 2020, Republicans also made inroads with minority voters in Texas and Florida, which helped winnow the Democratic House majority to a handful of seats even as the GOP lost the White House and the Senate.
Hoping to regain House and Senate control next year, McDaniel is planning to roll out other centers across the country aimed at engaging African American, Hispanic, and Asian voters ahead of the midterms.
“We’ve never opened an office this early in a community like this ahead of an election,” she told the crowd. “We are here because we want to represent every single vote.”