Virginia’s fast-growing Asian-American population has become one of the state’s most sought-after voting blocs, with Democrats and Republicans vying for the community’s support to help swing a critical U.S. Senate race and possibly a presidential election.
The Old Dominion’s Asian population grew by 72 percent over the last decade, making it one of the fastest-growing Asian communities in the country, Census figures show. And with Asian Americans now accounting for more than 500,000 of Virginia’s 8 million residents, politicians are scrambling to win them over.
Over the past week, both of the top contenders in Virginia’s hotly contested Senate race — Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine — held campaign events with Asian business leaders, courting their support in a race that could be decided by a handful of votes.
That marked a significant turn around from just a few years ago when Asian voters were largely ignored by the state’s political class, said My Lan Tran, executive director of the Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce. In the last five years, that has changed as Asian communities have boomed and become economic players, particularly in Northern Virginia.
“They’re genuinely interested in our community because they’ve seen data and know the contributions we bring, economically and politically,” Tran said.
For the first time, Virginia Democrats will have an Asian American reception at their state convention next month.
“We have to change as Virginia changes,” Democratic Party of Virginia Chairman Brian Moran said. “We need to demonstrate elections do have consequences to them but that message has to occur at doors, churches and ethnic festivals.”
“Asian” itself is an umbrella term for dozens of ethnic groups with varying concerns and needs. The community is further split among those drawn to Northern Virginia’s tech-heavy economy and those running small businesses and working for lower wages in the service sector.
But there are shared interests, too, Tran said.
“Despite our diversity and heritage, they all want, number one, further education for their children. They are here for that,” Tran said. “And, number two, to retain the family structure.”
The difficulty for the parties lies in getting Asian Americans interested in American politics. In the 2010 elections, just 17 percent of voting-age Asians cast a ballot in Virginia, according to Census data, 4 percentage point below the national average.
“There are a lot of ways to engage them but the best way to do that is through their pocket book,” said Pete Snyder, chairman of the Republican Party’s Victory 2012 campaign. “By focusing on the economic issues and small business in particular, we’re making sure we’re keeping them involved and that’s been a priority since day one.”