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Asian Americans hold outsize role in Georgia's Senate runoffs

Second-generation voters mobilize families with control of Senate at stake

President-elect Joe Biden campaigns for Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, Georgia's Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, in Atlanta on Dec. 15.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Georgia's two runoff elections Tuesday will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate as well as how much President-elect Joe Biden can accomplish in his first term, and the state's energized Asian American voters have a strong chance to swing the outcome.

Close to 240,000 Asian Americans are eligible to vote -- around 4% of Georgia's electorate -- and polls indicate a photo finish in both races. Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock face Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively.

"We're looking at less than 1 percentage-point differences," Sunny Shao, a researcher at AAPI Data, told Nikkei Asia, referring to recent poll numbers. "Asian American voters could really change the outcome of the race."

Many Asian American groups in Georgia are mobilizing their communities to vote blue, supporting the two Democrats. Entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang has temporarily set up shop in Georgia to lead the efforts.

Biden and the Democrats have no margin for error. Republicans secured 50 Senate seats in the Nov. 3 election, while the Democratic caucus won 48. "The power is literally in your hands," Biden said Monday as he addressed a group of voters in Atlanta. "Unlike any time in my career, one state -- one state can chart the course not just for the next four years but for the next generation."

The Architect of the Capitol erects the inaugural platform and seating on the U.S. Capitol's West Front ahead of the inauguration on Jan. 20. The Georgia runoff determines the balance of power in the Senate. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Capitol)

If the Democrats win both seats in Georgia, incoming Vice President Kamala Harris would hold the deciding vote in a tied Senate, giving the party control over both chambers of Congress and the White House after Biden's inauguration Jan. 20.

If the Republicans win either race, they will have the ability to block Biden's legislative agenda and derail many policies backed by the Democrats. Biden flipped the traditionally red state in the presidential election by less than 12,000 votes -- a razor-thin 0.25% margin favoring the Democrat.

On the ground, campaigns are targeting Asian American voters like never before.

"This is the first election I ever remember where it's not even one time a day, it's 20 emails a day, 10 texts or calls. It's overwhelming," said Angela Hsu, president of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association. "I don't think either party has focused on Asian Americans because Asian Americans [previously] didn't vote."

"What's compelling about this is that we actually voted" on Nov. 3, she said, "and now they're paying attention."

Across the board, first-generation Asian Americans tend to lean conservative, Hsu said. Many of them own small businesses and care about taxes and the economy. The second generation has more working professionals who care about social issues and the environment.

This second generation in Georgia has invested much effort to engage its elders, helping with voter registration, providing information in multiple languages and raising political awareness.

Many younger Asian American voters have conducted outreach activities and urged their parents to vote blue. Yang has hosted local awareness events and organized college students for door-to-door canvassing, an effort that Hsu's daughter joined.

With anti-China rhetoric running rampant in the U.S. after four years of President Donald Trump's administration, Hsu said Asian American communities have become enraged and that voter turnout is a vital display of strength.

U.S. President Donald Trump waves next to first lady Melania Trump as they depart after a campaign event for Republican U.S. senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in Valdosta, Georgia on Dec. 5, 2020.   © Reuters

"A lot of first-generation people [are] more interested in what's happening thousands of miles away in Asia than what's happening down the street," Hsu said. "It's a struggle I've had in the community. The problem is, they don't feel like they can make a difference. I hear a lot of people say, 'Our community is too small.'

"I think we've really proven that to be wrong," Hsu continued. "The best part of this presidential election is that [it shows] a very small group of people can have a really large impact."

Indian Americans represent Georgia's largest Asian American bloc, a statistic the Democrats find encouraging. Among such voters, Indian Americans lean the most heavily Democratic, according to a September survey led by APIAVote, a nonpartisan civic engagement group.

Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, recognized back in July that the Indian-American vote could be "an absolute difference maker" in the 2020 elections. But this ethnic group looks to have an even more outsized role in Georgia's Senate runoffs.

Indian Americans are a fast-growing group in Georgia, with a population estimated at over 144,000 -- more than 40% above the 2014 level and more than double the local Chinese population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2019 American Community Survey.

Indian Americans elsewhere are aware of their community's sway in the Georgia races. IMPACT, an Indian American advocacy and political action committee, began a $2.5 million campaign in December to turn out Asian American voters in Georgia after doing similar work in other swing states like Pennsylvania.

Nationally, Indian American voters are driven by issues similar to the rest of the demographic, an October study published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found. The most respondents, at 21%, rated the economy as their top concern, followed closely by health care at 20%. Racism/racial discrimination (12%), taxes (9%) and government corruption (8%) round out the top five issues.

"Interestingly, given all the talk about how America's ties with India might shape Indian American voting behavior this election, U.S.-India relations rank next to last: just 3% of respondents rank it as their most important election issue," the Carnegie report noted.

"Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi and President [Donald] Trump have a good relationship, and that is definitely a good, positive thing," said SK Raj, president of the Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce. "Now is it going to change when the new administration comes in? I don't believe so, nor would our members."

Instead, Raj said their top concern was robust economic support for small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program was good news, but members were disappointed "when we found out that a large portion of the PPP funding has actually gone to these really large companies," he said.

Immigration policy also weighs on many members, as a lot of their businesses thrive on high-tech talent from India.

"We really hope that there'll be a reversal of the curbs on [H-1B] work visas and such," Raj said.

Raj also expressed concern over the integrity of America's democratic process. A majority of the chamber's members voted by absentee ballot due to the pandemic, and it is very "unsettling" that "they were even trying to throw that away," he said.

"We come from a country which has almost four times the population and is not as advanced," Raj said. "If they can conduct the election properly with a population of 1.2 billion, the U.S. can do it."

For the broader Asian American population, the top concerns remain health care, national security and the economy, according to AAPI Data's Shao. The U.S. government's foreign policy on Asia also climbed the ranks in 2020.

As for Biden, Asian Americans want to be reflected in the diversity of the administration, including at the highest levels of office.

"I think [Asian Americans] need to have a feeling that they're represented," said Bonnie Youn, a legal recruiting manager at RMN Agency in Georgia. "When you see Asian Americans starting to run for elected office, particularly in Georgia, [who] are more running now than ever before, there is a feeling of belonging, a feeling of understanding."

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