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US elections 2020

Asian American group once for Trump now says 'we made a mistake'

'Asian GOP' makes 11th hour endorsement for Biden

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Less than a week before one of the most hotly contested elections in U.S. history, President Donald Trump lost the support of an Asian American group of Republicans that could be the difference in Florida and other swing states.

The National Committee of Asian American Republicans, or "Asian GOP," endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, saying in a statement Friday, "We need a president with empathy, integrity, and broadness capable of bringing all sides to the table." The group backed Trump in the 2016 contest.

Cliff Li, head of the Asian GOP, told Nikkei Asia that there has been a gradual "opinion shift" in the Asian conservative community, especially among Chinese American conservatives.

He added that he is personally enraged by Trump's finger-pointing and calling the new coronavirus the "China virus," with no regard for the effect of such rhetoric.

"Even calling it the 'kung flu' virus, he has shown a total disregard of the impact it could have on the Chinese American community," Li said.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. While the 11 million-plus that can vote this year make up only 5% of the nation's eligible voters, some are clustered in crucial battleground states.

Pollsters have found that Asian Americans do not strongly identify with either of the major parties, making them a demographic of undecided voters campaigns can target.

In the Friday statement, the Asian GOP said Trump's comments at the first presidential debate -- in which he called on far-right organization Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by" -- were reminiscent of China's Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution.

"When the President openly calls Proud Boys, categorized by the FBI as an extremist group, to stand by, it reminds us of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, when the dictator called on his supporters to oppress all different political voices as unpatriotic," the statement said.

Li, who left China for the U.S. after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, said, "This is a unique Chinese American perspective. ... When a party becomes somebody's party, this party is on the wrong track. Hopefully, the Republican Party will get back to [being] a party of the value and a party of the ideology, instead of an organization of a flawed politician."

The Biden endorsement comes from a Trump supporting group that is rooted in Florida and has consistently collaborated with the Republican National Committee (RNC) for outreach events targeting Asian communities.

The Asian GOP's website displays photos of past events, such as a Trump rally in Florida, a Lincoln Day Dinner at the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago Club and Safari Night Ball at Mar-a-Lago.

Asian American conservatives are in the minority, but their votes could have a significant impact in states such as Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where both candidates are fighting for every last supporter.

In battleground states, 45% of Asian American voters said they will vote for Biden, while 37% said they will vote for Trump, according to a September voter survey published by AAPI Data, a publisher of demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

There are more than 880,000 eligible Asian American voters in those four swing states, with Florida touting the highest number -- roughly 400,000 -- of such voters, according to Sunny Shao, a researcher from AAPI Data.

Shao said Asian American voters can potentially swing those states, but it is difficult to change voters' mind this late into election season, except perhaps "a certain type" of Chinese American voter.

"The ones who voted for Trump in 2016 with a lot of uncertainty, they simply voted for him because they didn't want to vote for Hillary or didn't want to vote for Democrats. They didn't have anything positive to say about Trump either," said Shao. "Four years of presidency [could have] changed their mind."

As of Friday, polls showed that Biden is leading by 2.3% over Trump in Florida, according to polling site FiveThirtyEight's data.

In the last days of the presidential race, the Asian GOP aims to push "the silent majority" of Asian American conservatives toward Biden. Li said the group's WeChat community has roughly 50,000 to 70,000 people, with a third pledging support for Trump and the rest saying they will not vote for Trump but are unsure who to vote for.

"They do that not because they're not sure, it's because they're shy of saying it, it's almost saying 'I made a mistake back in 2016,' which we did," Li said. "The purpose of [publishing the statement] is telling people [who are] too shy, 'It's OK to vote for Joe Biden, it's OK to come out to express, it's OK that you made a mistake in 2016.'"

Li said he has received some personal attacks from Trump loyalists since the Biden endorsement came out, but the majority clicked "Like" on the committee's statement on WeChat.

Based in Florida, Li had worked closely with the Republican Party for years. When the Asian GOP started in 2015, Li said they were guided by RNC staff. He was the chair of the Asian American outreach team for Florida's governor Ron DeSantis.

But the cozy relationship didn't last when the Asian GOP made headlines in 2019 over the Cindy Yang scandal.

Li "Cindy" Yang, a massage parlor owner and a fundraising director at one of Asian GOP's local Florida chapters, was reportedly selling access to Trump family members to Chinese businessmen and politicians. Yang has denied any wrongdoing.

Cliff Li said the local chapter did nothing wrong, but the scandal heavily damaged the organization's reputation. Li said it was "very unpleasant" how the RNC handled the scandal, adding the Republican Party "just abandoned us." Li has not worked with RNC since.

The RNC "just left us to fight our own battle, they doubted us just like everybody else, like the Democrats," Li said. "You work with the conservative community, you don't just use them."

However, Li said their group's "beef" with Trump is much bigger than that.

"Especially this year during the pandemic, we have deep doubts about his leadership, his priority and his heart... It seems we have a majority that starts to go against Trump," he said. "It's a very important election, we want our voice heard, we were hesitating, but fortunately it's not too late."

Trump "failed on all fronts" when handling the COVID-19 crisis, Li said.

"Even [Trump] got the virus himself, he still hasn't changed," said Li, raising his voice an octave higher. "This is somebody who refuses to learn from his mistakes [and] refuses to be the person who wants to unite everyone together to deal with the crisis."

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