GOP Hopes 'Fresh Face' Will Unseat Calif. Incumbent

Van Tran i i

hide captionMembers of the GOP leadership call California Assemblyman Van Tran a "fresh face" for the party. He is the first Vietnamese-American to serve in a state legislature, and will likely win the primary to run for Congress against seven-term incumbent Loretta Sanchez.

Ric Francis/AP
Van Tran

Members of the GOP leadership call California Assemblyman Van Tran a "fresh face" for the party. He is the first Vietnamese-American to serve in a state legislature, and will likely win the primary to run for Congress against seven-term incumbent Loretta Sanchez.

Ric Francis/AP

Republicans are hoping to make gains in the 2010 elections, and they're looking for new voices to carry their message to voters.

One of their top prospects is California Assemblyman Van Tran. He's the first Vietnamese-American to serve in a state legislature. Now, he has been recruited by the party to run for Congress in a Southern California district with the highest concentration of Vietnamese-Americans in the nation.

Tran has represented the 68th Assembly District for nearly six years. Before that, he was a member of a local city council. And Tran's personal story is very much like those of his constituents. His family left Vietnam on an American military transport plane a week before the fall of Saigon, when he was 10 years old.

"It was a trip that defined ... my life," Tran says. "You've left a lot of memories back in the old country, and still you remember the legacy of the war, and you live through it, through your parents and through your elders as well."

That experience, says Tran, has given him a unique perspective that has guided his political life.

"It goes back to the virtues that make this country great," he says. "It's all about freedom, it's all about opportunity, it's all about hard work and fairness and the generosity of the American people as well."

Tran describes himself as a conservative on social issues, as well as fiscal ones. But U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is in charge of recruiting candidates for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says he was looking for more than a conservative ideologue.

"I'm looking for fresh faces, people who understand their district, listen to their district, could actually solve problems," McCarthy says. "When you look at this district and the makeup of it, [Tran] is one of the first names who come to mind."

Tran has a rival for the GOP nomination in the 47th Congressional District, but the opponent is not as well-funded and lacks the official backing of the party. So, presuming Tran wins the primary, he'll then be taking on Democrat Loretta Sanchez, a seven-term incumbent.

Sanchez is the only Democrat representing traditionally Republican Orange County in Congress. She has paid considerable attention to the concerns of her Vietnamese constituents. She serves as the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, and frequently introduces resolutions that focus on human rights issues in that country.

And overall, the demographics in the 47th Congressional District tilt in her favor. There are nearly three times more Latinos registered to vote there than there are Vietnamese. And Democrats have a 13-point registration advantage.

The executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party, Melahat Rafiei, says the GOP has made a mistake in targeting Sanchez.

"It's a very bad idea to make the assumption that Vietnamese voters are going to vote for someone just because they have a Vietnamese name or are Vietnamese," Rafiei says.

"If this were another district where the representative was out of touch with the community, I could understand the Republican strategy," says Rafiei. "But they've ... picked the wrong person to fight."

Still, Tran believes he can unseat Sanchez next November despite the challenges. As evidence that nothing is impossible, he points to a Democrat. Look at Barack Obama, he says. Who would have thought he'd be president today?

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