Stephanie Cho remembers a time when she could walk the halls of the Georgia state capitol and see just two Asian Americans: the Republican state representative Byung J Pak and a member of his staff.
She had recently moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles, in 2013, and was “shocked” by how few Asian Americans were involved in Georgia politics. Campaigns, Cho said, made little effort to engage Asian American voters, despite their growing presence in the state, and political leaders did not seem to grasp the potential voting power of this electorate.
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“When you think about California, what it was like 30 or 40 years ago, that’s Georgia,” said Cho, who is now the executive director of the civil rights advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. “It’s on a trajectory of change.”
Though Asian Americans comprise only about 4% of Georgia’s population – a far smaller share than in places like California – they have emerged as an increasingly influential electoral force in this politically divided, southern swing state.
Historic turnout among Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters – who make up the fastest-growing segment of Georgia’s electorate – helped Joe Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992. According to national exit polls, nearly two-thirds of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters cast their ballot for Biden.
By some estimates, voter participation among Asian Americans in Georgia nearly doubled from 2016 to 2020 – a testament, Cho said, to the years-long voter engagement and mobilization efforts led by a new generation of Asian American organizers and activists.
The next time she visits the state capitol, there will be six Asian Americans serving in the Georgia legislature, including five Democrats.
“When no one was looking, we really changed things in Georgia,” Cho said.
Now Democrats hope to replicate their success among Asian Americans in a pair of runoff elections on 5 January that will determine control of the US Senate. The campaigns for Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock say they view the AAPI community as critical to winning their races. Both teams have hired AAPI constituency directors to lead multilingual and multicultural outreach programs, that includes campaign visits to AAPI-owned small businesses and advertising in ethnic media.
“We are absolutely crucial in this race,” said Anjali Enjeti, the co-founder of the Georgia chapter of the group They See Blue, which mobilizes south Asian Democrats. “We turned out in 2020 at a rate higher – much higher – than we have historically turned out and we can absolutely help bring it home again.”
Though no single voting bloc can take credit for turning the state blue in November, as many as 30,000 Asian Americans voters in Georgia cast ballots for the first time in the November presidential election, nearly three times Biden’s 11,000-vote victory.
High turnout among Black, Latino and young voters, as well as a rejection of Trump by white, college-educated suburban voters who traditionally lean Republican, were also key. Many organizers, including Enjeti, credited the work of Stacey Abrams, the 2018 candidate for governor who founded a voter registration group called the New Georgia Project, and other Black women organizers in the state who helped mobilize and engage new and low-propensity voters in minority communities.
Four years ago, Sam Park defeated a three-term Republican incumbent to become the first Asian American Democrat elected to the Georgia general assembly.
The son of Korean immigrants, Park got his start in politics working for Abrams when she was minority leader of the Georgia House. When he decided to run for office himself, he said targeting Asian American voters was not a sophisticated campaign strategy but simply made “common sense”.
It worked – and since then Park has helped Georgia Democrats engage the state’s AAPI voters. In 2020, he was the Georgia chair of Young Asian Americans for Biden.
In recent weeks, Georgia has attracted some of the biggest names in American politics, including the president, the former president and the president-elect.
Kamala Harris, whose late mother immigrated to California from India, will campaign again in Georgia on Sunday and Andrew Yang, who is Taiwanese American and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, spent time in the state mobilizing Asian Americans ahead of the elections next month.
We are absolutely crucial in this race.
But Democrats aren’t the only ones courting Georgia’s Asian American voters.
Congresswomen-elect Young Kim and Michelle Steel of California visited Georgia this month to rally Asian American voters in support of the Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Kim and Steel, who became two of the first three Korean Americans elected to Congress, both defeated incumbent Democrats to reclaim pieces of Orange county that Republicans lost in the “blue wave” of 2018.
Advocacy groups say they are redoubling their efforts in the final days before polls close, knocking on doors, circulating polling information and providing language assistance.
“It’s really important to make sure that people understand what’s at stake,” Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, the executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which works to elect progressive candidates. “Not just in the political dynamics of flipping the US Senate, because I don’t necessarily think that resonates as a message – but what we could achieve if we help elect two Democratic senators from Georgia.”
Asian American is an umbrella term that squeezes families with roots in dozens of countries into a single demographic bloc. The designation blurs linguistic, cultural and religious distinctions, as well as ethnic and generational differences that could be decisive in a state like Georgia, where elections are won and lost by tight margins.
But while surveys suggest Asian Americans broadly favor the Democratic party, Vietnamese Americans traditionally lean Republican, and there are growing pockets of conservatism among newer immigrants, particularly from China and India. Meanwhile, younger Asian Americans, like their counterparts across demographic groups, tend to be more progressive, though they also vote at a lower rate.
In the 2020 elections, progressive organizers confronted a new challenge: the proliferation of native-language disinformation on social apps such as WeChat and KakaoTalk. Many involve conspiracies about Democrats and communism that they say helped convert some older Asian American voters and first-generation immigrants into rightwing, Trump supporters.
Since 2000, the Asian American population in Georgia has grown 138%, according to AAPI data, which publishes demographic data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with 80% saying they speak a language other than English at home.
Families of Indian descent comprise the largest share of the state’s Asian American population, followed by Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Among Georgia’s electorate, three in four AAPI voters were born outside the US.
Many of these newcomers have made their homes in the sprawling suburbs around Atlanta, helping to turn these once-Republican strongholds into political battlegrounds.
What you’re seeing in Georgia is a sign of things to come
“What you’re seeing in Georgia is a sign of things to come,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside, and the head of AAPI Data, “not only for future elections in Georgia, but for the future of politics in the American south.”
Perdue and Loeffler have attempted to paint their Democratic opponents as “radical liberals” with ties to China, echoing a message that has resonated with some AAPI voters. But they have also embraced Trump, who repelled many Asian Americans with his nativist immigration policies and handling of the pandemic, which included his frequent use of the term “China virus” that was widely condemned as racist.
Warnock and Ossoff have focused on healthcare and combatting the pandemic, which remains the top concern among Asian American voters in Georgia. Organizers say the issue is particularly acute for immigrants who have watched from afar as their native countries responded far more aggressively to the threat.
Like the rest of America, Asian Americans are grappling with health and economic impacts of the virus. But Asian Americans have also faced a growing threat racism and bigotry from those who blame them for bringing the virus to the US.
Michelle Au, a Chinese American physician who as elected to the Georgia state senate as a Democrat in November, said she spent much of last year speaking to the voters in her district, many of them Asian Americans, about their fears: parents worried about losing their healthcare and small business owners struggling to stay afloat.
Asian Americans made it clear in November that they desperately wanted a change in leadership, Au said. Now Ossoff and Warnock must convince these voters that their mandate for change hinges on next week’s runoffs.
“We did not want Donald Trump,” Au said. “But we also do not want a continuation of Trumpism which has had this really destructive effect on our communities. So we can’t just stop by electing Biden because that doesn’t get us where we need to go. We need to give this administration the power it needs to do what we elected them to do.”