Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series on the Asian American vote and the 2016 elections. Part one looks at how Asian Americans are a swing vote that both Republicans and Democrats have been slow to attract, and part two looks at challenges in registering Asian American voters.
Sang Yi could barely squeeze into the tiny but crowded Lebanese restaurant up the street from his home in Fairfax County, Virginia, when he launched his bid in April for a seat in the state’s House of Delegates.
Family members, friends and neighbors were there, of course, to wish him luck. But he scanned the room and saw faces he didn’t recognize, many of them old Korean faces that seemed to beam with pride, said Yi, who arrived in the United States from South Korea when he was 4.
One older gentleman approached him that day, stuck a hand into a pocket and pulled out a $5 bill. He stuffed it in Yi’s open hand. (Yi returned the money.)
Over the course of the year, others have dug into their pockets, many of them Korean Americans who had never before made a political donation. “A lot of them are small donations,” said Yi, a Republican staffer on the House Committee on Oversight and Government. But they add up, he said, and give ethnic communities an opportunity to engage in the political process.
“They don’t want to come to these fundraisers, and they don’t like hobnobbing,” said Yi.
There is a dearth of data about race and political giving — and even less such information on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).
But it’s not a stretch to think that political giving will rise among Asian Americans, the country’s fastest-growing demographic, as they become more engaged in the electoral process and as more AAPIs seek public office, raising the group’s visibility in positions of power.
It helps that Asian Americans are generally more affluent than other ethnic groups. In 2010, the median household income among Asian Americans was $66,000 — far surpassing the $49,800 U.S. median, according to the Pew Research Center.
In politics, there are two levels of engagement, according to Gautum Dutta, the executive director of the Asian American Action Fund: voting and giving money.
“It's easier perhaps to get people involved than it is to get them to give money,” said Dutta, whose fund helps bankroll Democratic candidates. Nevertheless, he said, “Asian Americans are still a group of voters that are up for grabs, especially when it comes to money.”
“It’s the ultimate act of charity,” he continued. “There are no tax benefits for giving. If there are other benefits, maybe we don’t want to know about it.”
In July the group held its first gala of the 2016 presidential campaign season at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The fund used the occasion to showcase a slate of candidates of Asian descent.
That night it endorsed Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois for the U.S. Senate. An Iraq War veteran who was born in Thailand, in 2012 she became the first Asian American elected to Congress from her state.
The Asian American Action Fund also endorsed Kumar Barve of Maryland for a congressional seat. If he wins, he would be the second Indian American in Congress. Indian Americans are expected to pour money into the campaign, as they did with Ami Bera of California, now the only member of South Asian descent in the House.
“The Indian Americans are very invested in getting another member of Congress, so they are willing to support an Indian American running. They’ve really ramped up their fundraising,” said Madalene Mielke, the founder of the Arum Group, a consulting firm that helps Democrats get elected.
She said Asian American communities, particularly those dominated by immigrants, are more likely to help those who look like them, speak their language and have empathy for the challenges they face.
As the number of Asian Americans grows, their political giving is sure to rise, Mielke said, noting that there is lots of money to be raised in the community. Mielke, who is of Vietnamese descent, amassed about $1 million from Asian Americans for John Kerry during his failed presidential bid.
While much of the focus is in cultivating a donor base at home, some candidates, like Jeb Bush, have also sought help from overseas.
In September, running low on campaign cash, he appealed to potential benefactors across the Pacific Ocean. He came away with about $100,000 from about 40 U.S. citizens assembled in Hong Kong for a teleconference with him. He reportedly plans more such fundraisers.
Not all the expatriates were of Asian descent, but The Financial Times noted Bush’s advantage over his rivals in raising money because of his family’s network in Asia. His father, George H.W. Bush, served as the U.S. envoy to China during Richard Nixon’s administration.
(It is illegal to accept campaign contributions from foreign nationals who do not have a green card. Two decades ago, a campaign finance controversy swirled when a Democratic Party operative, John Huang, solicited illegal contributions from foreign sources. The controversy prompted scrutiny on donations from people with Asian surnames, prompting some Asian American activists to denounce the investigation as racial profiling.)
It is difficult to track donations by race or ethnicity. Federal forms don’t ask for such information. What’s more, donations that fall below the $200 threshold for reporting are nearly impossible to track.
Researchers have attempted to sift through data and can, at best, make educated guesses based on names. Some Korean Americans’ names, such as Lee and Park, can be mistaken for Anglos’. Filipino names, because of their often Spanish origins, are sometimes confused with Latinos’.
The Institute for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts conducted one of the few studies on political giving among Asian Americans. The institute compared political contributions in the Bay State’s gubernatorial contests in 2002 and 2014. According to the study, the number of Asian Americans contributing to a gubernatorial candidate nearly doubled (from 644 in 2002 to 1,221 last year), and total donations more than doubled (from $121,000 in 2002 to nearly $300,000 last year).
Republican Charlie Baker, who eventually prevailed against Democrat Martha Coakley in 2014, garnered more than a third of the number of contributions from Asian Americans. Coakley and her two opponents in the Democratic primary split most of the rest.
When the Center for Responsive Politics set out this summer to look at political contributions through the lens of race, what it found wasn’t surprising: very few donors of color among the biggest givers.
Among the 500 top campaign contributors in 2014, the center identified only a dozen nonwhite donors. One was black, and one was Hispanic. The remaining 10 were wealthy Asian Americans who combined for $3.6 million in contributions to candidates and political action committees.
Muneer Satter, a former Goldman Sachs executive, is listed as the top Asian-American donor. He and his wife, Kristen Hertel, donated $668,000 in 2014, nearly all to Republicans or aligned PACs.
“With all the issues about race in the news over the past year, we thought it would be interesting and timely to look at race and money,” said Andrew Mayersohn, who authored the center’s report on race and money.
It’s hard to say what contributors get in return for their money, said Mayersohn, who is earning a doctorate in American politics at Harvard. But the motivations for giving among this moneyed group, he speculated, probably has little to do with seeking influence to address the day-to-day issues facing Asian Americans.
That’s why Asian American organizations are trying to mobilize their grass roots.
Irene Bueno, a board member for the Asian American Action Fund, is direct in her pitch. “If you want your community to have a voice, you have to play the game, buy into the system,” she said.
While educating people about voting is vital, she said, so is financially supporting candidates who care about the issues of ethnic communities.
“We try to educate them about why it’s important to vote,” she said, “but also why money is important and how it works in this country in terms of political power and voice.”
For Yi, the Virginia House candidate, asking for a vote is as easy as shaking a hand. But asking for money, he said, is a much more delicate ask.
“Raising money is the worst part,” said Yi, who doesn’t use a professional fundraiser. “Nobody wants to call their family and friends to ask for money, because it’s not a natural course of interaction. There is a very big cultural gap.”
As of last week, Yi had raised about $190,000 during the course of his campaign, according to fundraising records filed with the state. The Democratic incumbent, David Bulova, amassed more than $245,000.
In the end, Yi couldn't muster enough votes. He lost to Bulova in last night's General Election, 43 percent to 57 percent.