The race over the new 45th Congressional District covering part of Orange County, considered by many to be one of the closest in the country, continued to heat up, with accusations of racism and communist sympathy creating a larger rift between Congresswoman Michelle Steel (R-CA) and her Democratic opponent, Mt. San Antonio College Board of Trustees President Jay Chen.
The controversy itself goes back to April. That month, Chen said at a campaign event, “[Steel] just had another town hall the other day. And it’s tough. Like, we’ve transcribed it. You kind of need an interpreter to figure out exactly what she’s saying. The more she speaks, the better for us.” The Steel campaign and other Republicans quickly shot back with accusations of racism, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) even getting involved.
“The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee needs to immediately disavow and remove Jay Chen from their ‘Red to Blue’ program in light of his racist attack on Rep. Michelle Steel,” said McCarthy in April. “Disgraceful remarks like those uttered by Jay Chen have no place in our nation’s political discourse and the DCCC must act unless they approve of these racist remarks.”
While Chen said that his words were out of context and that he didn’t mock her accent, the issue played big at the June primary polls. Steel handedly won the primary over Chen, 48.2% to 43.1%, with Republican candidates holding a large majority of votes in total with well over 56% of the total votes. The newly redistricted district, at first considered to be one giving an edge towards Democrats due to having more registered party residents than the GOP, moved to toss-up to leaning Republican in the following months. While still close, Steel is now favored to win the district, with projections currently giving Steel a 71% chance of winning the district.
However, the issue of race has now shored itself again in the OC race. Steel, an immigrant from South Korea, and her campaign came out on the offensive last week by distributing flyers in Vietnamese pointing out Chen’s support of the Confucius Institute, an education and cultural promotion organization backed by the People’s Republic of China and labeled by the U.S. State Department as a foreign mission of the Chinese government. The flyers in question show an altered image of Chen holding the Communist Manifesto while being flanked by images of Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin while telling students in Vietnamese that “Jay Chen invited China into our children’s classroom”.
GOP Rep. Michelle Steel sent this flyer to Vietnamese-American voters depicting her opponent, Jay Chen, as a communist indoctrinating children.
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) October 1, 2022
“Jay Chen spent the last decade voting for, promoting and defending his support for installing Chinese Communist Party-funded Confucius Institutes into classrooms and as recently as February was fundraising off his position,” said Steel spokesman Lance Trover in a statement earlier this week. “The State Department has said their mission is to advance Beijing’s global propaganda, and in an era where nothing passes unanimously, the U.S. Senate voted 100-0 to increase oversight of these CCP-funded institutes.”
The Chen campaign fires back
Chen, who is Taiwanese -American, and his campaign immediately fired back that his grandmother had escaped Communist-controlled China and that he is a Naval Reserve officer with top-secret security clearance, something which a Communist sympathizer would not get.
“In the span of only a few days, Michelle Steel — who has never worn a military uniform — preyed upon generational trauma in the Vietnamese community, pushed a patently untrue narrative that a Taiwanese-American is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, and attempted to defile a decorated Navy veteran’s reputation and allegiance to the United States,” said Chen campaign manager Lindsay Barnes in a statement, further denying any ties between Chen and the Chinese communist party.
The issues of race have continued to simmer in the largely Asian-American district, highlighting how close the race is, but also bringing out issues that are almost never seen in other districts.
“The 45th District with Steel and Chen is going to be close,” explained Ronald Yang, an Asian-American candidate profiler in Washington, to the Globe on Wednesday. “And this recent issue of a candidate being sympathetic to Communism, specifically within the Vietnamese community, is big, especially among the critical vote of those over 50, many of whom escaped when the Country was taken over by the communists in the 1970s.”
“But this flyer issue is also showing that candidates need to be prepared more on their pasts, especially when it has to do with anything with any issue that effects Asian-Americans. Based on the Chen campaigns reaction, they were a bit blind sighted by the accusations and the flyers, and they should have had something ready to go on it, but honestly, the specific flyer probably threw a change up. It was good on the Chen campaign to point out his Naval Reserve and his grandmother’s history. Regardless of the flyer, they should be playing up his military career a little more as a further counter.”
“This is going to be a close race, and the Steel campaign is leaving no stone unturned. The flyer was just the thing that made this erupt a bit. Probably will happen again in the race in some way between now and November 8th.”
As of this week, most political outlets continue to consider the district either a toss-up or leaning towards the GOP.
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