In Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, GOP struggles to woo minority voters


Barbara Comstock speaks at a Korean American Republican Party of Virginia dinner reception on July 12 in Vienna. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

Barbara Comstock, the Republican nominee in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, recently appeared before an audience of Korean Americans in Tysons Corner, the kind of gathering the GOP is targeting as it seeks to revive the party in the commonwealth and beyond.

When it was her turn to speak, Comstock packed virtually every sentence with a reference to Koreans, including her work with the Korean Chamber of Commerce, that “many” Korean churches are in her district, and that she enjoys attending the annual Korean American festival.

“You always have a seat at the table with the Republican Party,” said Comstock, a state delegate who represents Fairfax County, as audience members applauded politely.

Ever since the GOP lost the 2012 presidential election, Republicans have sought to broaden their appeal beyond the white suburban voters who have long constituted the party’s base.

Although Republicans view their quest as national in scope, much effort is focused on Fairfax, Manassas and Loudoun County — Washington suburbs in the 10th where the Latino and Asian populations have ballooned in recent years.

Asians, Hispanics are key minorities in Virginia's 10th District

With the GOP’s most conservative voices opposing immigration reform and the federal health-care law — issues of great importance to Latinos and Asians — Republicans acknowledge the challenges they face in appealing to those groups.

Their goal, at least initially, is to chip away at Democratic dominance. In the process, they envision another benefit: making the party more attractive to moderate white voters repelled by the image of Republicans as unwelcoming to minorities, immigrants, gays and women.

“The spinoff is that other voters — swing and moderates — like inclusive and optimistic candidates,” said former congressman Thomas Davis III, known for his ties to Asians in Northern Virginia’s 11th Congressional District. “They don’t like people who are polarizing.”

Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist, said, “To not have a minority outreach strategy is to not have a campaign. We may not win 51 percent of the Hispanic vote but, hey, can we win 30 percent? You can never get to 50 if you don’t start somewhere.”

Making a connection

A slice of Virginia that stretches west through Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick counties, two-thirds of the 10th District is white, while Hispanics and Asians each account for 11 percent. The district, which also includes portions of Fairfax and Prince William counties, is thick with rural and suburban Republican enclaves that have drawn Comstock’s attention.

On July 4, while her volunteers attended a festival in Manassas, home to a growing Latino community, Comstock was in Clifton, which is 98 percent white, marching in the town’s parade while members of her entourage sang “God Bless America.”

Yet Comstock, who is facing Democrat John Foust in the Nov. 4 general election, has also made sure to advertise her appearances before Korean and Indian audiences. She touts her legislative efforts on their behalf even as advocates say she has supported measures that are anti-immigrant.


Jason Chung, national director of the Republican National Committee, talks to Barbara Comstock and Johanna Persing, communications director of Comstock’s campaign, at a Korean American Republican Party of Virginia dinner reception on July 12 in Vienna. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

The “Comstock Connection,” her newsletter, is rife with blurbs describing her attendance at events such as the Punjabi Mela Festival, a celebration of Indian and Pakistani culture; and the 50th anniversary celebration of the Organization of Korean American Women.

The newsletter also highlighted the first celebration of the Korean Bell Garden in Vienna, a new attraction she said she was “thrilled” to have in her district when she spoke to the gathering of Korean Americans in Tysons earlier this month.

Sponsored by the RNC, the event — held at Woo Lae Oak, a restaurant that is a pillar of Northern Virginia’s Korean community — is the kind of grass-roots affair the party is seeking to host around the country.

“Good to see you,” Comstock said repeatedly as she visited tables while an aide shot photos of her with Korean guests that were later posted on Twitter and Facebook. At one point, the candidate conferred with Harold Pyon, a Korean civic leader who could be heard teaching Comstock to say “How are you?” in Korean.

Whether Comstock’s efforts add up to votes is unknown.

Tae Kim, 75, a retired computer operator who sat at a table with his wife, said he has split his votes between the two parties, supporting President Obama, but then Republican Ken Cuccinelli II for governor.

On his jacket, he wore a “Comstock for Congress” sticker, but he cautioned against drawing conclusions about his allegiance. “Some lady gave it to me,” he said of the sticker. At the moment, he said, he is undecided.

Asian voters

In 1992, when Bill Clinton won the presidency, polls showed that two-thirds of Asians voted for Republican George H.W. Bush. Twenty years later, Obama won two-thirds of the Asian vote.

The swing in Asian support is the most dramatic of any voting bloc in the country, according to academics, and is rooted in a number of factors, beginning with Asians settling in Democratic strongholds such as New York and California. Clinton also helped draw Asians by courting their community during his presidency.

But Asians also abandoned the GOP after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus felt discriminated against by the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law drafted by a Republican senator and embraced by President George W. Bush.

Their sense of estrangement was exacerbated by the emergence of Christian conservatives within the GOP who made immigrants feel unwelcome, said Karthick Ramakrishan, a political science professor at the University of California at Riverside who directs the National Survey of Asian Americans.

“If you had asked me three years ago if it could get any worse, I would’ve said it can’t,” Ramakrishan said of the GOP’s standing among Asians. “But it did. They need to stop the bleeding.”

Obama even dominated the Vietnamese vote, Ramakrishan said, a community that had traditionally supported the GOP because of its opposition to communism. “That showed you how bad off the Republicans had gotten,” he said.

After Obama’s reelection, the Republican National Committee issued a report concluding that Republicans “need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them.”

The RNC hired liaisons to those communities, including Jason Chung, a veteran of Virginia politics, to appeal to Asians. His duties include encouraging Republicans nationwide to attend churches and special events such as festivals in immigrant communities. “A lot of complaints I heard in years past is that Republicans and Democrats just show up before the election,” he said. “We’re trying to create national exposure at the local level.”

Raynard Jackson, a Republican strategist who is African American, has been critical of the party’s outreach to blacks. Jackson lauded the RNC’s hiring of outreach workers, but he said that Republicans’ Senate and House staffs remain overwhelmingly white.

“A major deficiency,” Jackson said. “How can you go into a black community and you’re surrounded by a bunch of white staffers? The optics don’t match your rhetoric.”

In addition, the GOP’s ability to draw groups such as Latinos is undermined by leaders opposing immigration reform, even as prominent Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona have preached compromise.

Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, of the nonpartisan Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, said immigration issues create a “challenge” for Republicans seeking Latino votes. “It is something the Republicans have to work at,” he said.

Receptive to message

Among immigrant groups, Republicans view Asians as among the most potentially receptive to their message, if only because surveys have shown that they do not feel aligned with either party.

At the same time, surveys have shown that Asians support immigration reform and universal health care and prefer traditional Democratic touchstones such as a big, activist government.

If nothing else, Asians present an opportunity nationally because their population increased 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, equaling the growth of Latinos. In Loudoun, a centerpiece of the 10th, the Asian population grew from 5.3 percent to 14.7 percent.

State Del. David Ramadan (R), an Arab whose district includes Loudoun, won reelection in an area won by Obama. He attributed his success, in part, to relationships he has cultivated by attending Indian and Pakistani festivals, block parties and religious services.

“When I walk into an Indian temple, I am received as if I’m Indian — why?” Ramadan said. “Because I’ve spent years building those relationships. We are an example to the rest of the state and the rest of the country.”

Comstock, too, has assisted immigrant communities. But some say she has supported measures in the General Assembly that can be seen as onerous to immigrants. One bill requires non-English-speaking defendants convicted of criminal offenses to pay for translation services. Another requires police to ask arrestees if they are in the country legally. A third authorized the State Board of Elections to verify that registered voters are U.S. citizens.

“There’s a well-documented pattern over the last several years of Comstock voting or taking positions on bills that are consistently unfriendly to immigrants,” said John Liss, co-executive director of Virginia New Majority, which organizes low-income and immigrant communities.

Asked about her record on immigration issues in Richmond, Johanna Persing, a Comstock spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail that the delegate “has worked on many jobs, small business, education and quality of life issues vital to their communities.”

As examples, Persing cited Comstock’s support of anti-human-trafficking legislation and tax relief for the tech sector, which “has many immigrant and first generation entrepreneurs in our area.”

Comstock also voted to require that textbooks in Virginia schools note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea, an issue of significance to Koreans who recall Japan’s imperial rule.

Six days after that vote, Comstock’s newsletter included a photograph of the delegate with an Asian woman, the two of them holding a sign saying “Vote Yes” on the bill. The accompanying blurb noted that Comstock was a “co-patron” on the legislation, which is an “important issue for the entire Korean American community.”

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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