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Asian-Americans recently passed Latinos as the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. That means they're an increasingly important political force. In 2012, three-quarters of Asian-American voters backed President Obama. But a recent survey shows that half don't identify with either political party. NPR's Juana Summers takes us to a heated race for a congressional seat in northern Virginia where both campaigns are courting Asian-American voters.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: If you've turned on your TV or radio this election season, you've surely seen or heard at least one campaign ad. But you've probably never heard ads like these.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Korean).
BARBARA COMSTOCK: I'm delegate Barbara Comstock, and I sponsored this ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Korean).
JOHN FOUST: I'm John Foust, and I approve this message.
SUMMERS: Those ads ran on WKTV, the Korean language television station in Virginia. The first was for Republican Barbara Comstock, the second for her Democratic opponent, John Foust. In this part of Virginia, the Asian population has skyrocketed. Asians now make up 5 percent of the state's population. And in some areas, especially in northern Virginia, they're a sizable voting block.
Foust and Comstock campaigned recently in Annandale, the nexus of Korean life in Virginia. Clustered around the area's roads, you'll see signs with large Korean characters advertising businesses. There are bakeries, real estate offices and restaurants. And it's not just Koreans who have moved to the area. Vietnamese, Filipinos and Chinese came to the area for the schools and other opportunities. Indians flocked to this part of the state for high-tech jobs.
JACK LECHELT: Welcome, everyone, to the Minority Chamber Candidate Forum.
SUMMERS: Dr. Jack Lechelt kicks off the event for a crowd of about a hundred people gathered in a large multipurpose room at a northern Virginia community college. They sat in conference room chairs and clustered around high-top tables covered with campaign literature and stickers. Grace Han Wolf is a Democrat on the Herndon Town Council. She says she was the first Korean-American elected in Virginia. She helped organize the forum.
GRACE HAN WOLF: For a lot of these folks who immigrated to the U.S., government was something that was not part of their lives. It's quite different here in America 'cause government is the way you get things done. Without a vote, without a voice, you're not able to impact the changes that can impact your community. And finally, those communities are realizing that connection.
SUMMERS: When Democrat John Foust takes the stage, connection is what he's after.
FOUST: I am very, very proud of the fact that I have been endorsed by every elected AAPI official in northern Virginia.
SUMMERS: That's not uncommon. For more than a decade, the support of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders has shifted dramatically toward the Democratic Party. Republicans used to carry the Asian-American vote. But in 2012, President Obama won more than 70 percent. Republicans aren't giving up, though. Sang Yi is the president of Korean American Republicans of Virginia. He makes an analogy to the way candidates court female voters.
SANG YI: Women care about more than just reproductive health issues. They care about taxes. They care about, you know, the economy. They care about national security. They care about everything that everybody else cares about, and so is the Asian community.
SUMMERS: Comstock's speech hits on all the typical Republican rallying points - repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes, a strong national defense. But she's also looking to make a personal connection.
COMSTOCK: They only have 45 cents in their pocket, and they started washing dishes. And they started going to night school and to community college and then getting degrees and then starting their own businesses. You all here know somebody like that because that's the story of northern Virginia and the 10th district.
SUMMERS: But for people like Genie Nguyen, pitches like these don't work. She's the president of the group Voice of Vietnamese Americans, and she helps other Asians register to vote. But she hasn't made up her mind about who she'll vote for.
GENIE NGUYEN: I do hope that in the next few weeks, more actions from the candidates will reach out to the community, especially the Asian-Americans' community and the Vietnamese community, in a meaningful way. And more importantly, I hope that whoever wins will keep their promise.
SUMMERS: And she's not alone. A recent survey found that nearly one-third of Asian-American voters still don't know who they'll support next month. For candidates like Comstock and Foust, that's what you call an opportunity. Juana Summers, NPR News, Washington.
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