Race of the Day: Ethnic Politics Erupt in California

Up until Election Day, we'll preview a series of races across the country. Check in with The Atlantic Politics Channel for a new race each day.

In 1996, Democrat Loretta Sanchez shocked the political establishment when she defeated long-time incumbent Bob Dornan, a Republican, by less than 1,000 votes in a district representing central Orange County cities such as Garden Grove and Anaheim. She won largely due to the support she received from the growing Hispanic population in this district.

Fast-forward to 2010 in California's 47th congressional district and Republican challenger Van Tran seems to be taking a page out of the playbook Sanchez used to defeat Dornan (replace the word "Hispanic" with "Vietnamese") more than a decade ago. Tran, who had ironically once worked for Dornan, is trying to defeat Sanchez by maximizing his votes from the growing Vietnamese population, which has more than doubled from what it was a decade ago.
This race is getting nasty, as proved by a Sanchez appearance on the Spanish television channel Univision in which she told Hispanic voters that Republicans and the Vietnamese were trying to steal her seat from the Hispanic community. The video is sure to at least galvanize Vietnamese voters for Tran in an election year in which turnout is destiny. Sanchez will need Hispanics to answer her clarion call if she wants to avoid antacids leading up to the election.

Tran, a term-limited state representative, has earned the trust of fiscal conservatives in California. In addition, national Republicans have touted his potential and candidacy, welcoming a new ethnic face into the party. And while Sanchez has diligently reached out to the Vietnamese community, even dressing in traditional Vietnamese garb at local festivals, Tran's main line of attack against her seems to be that like her legislative record, she is more show than substance when it comes to issues that affect the Vietnamese community. Sanchez's latest unforced gaffe may prove Tran's point, at least among those in the Vietnamese community. Sanchez has said that she was merely referring to Vietnamese Republican activists, but the OC Weekly, which first broke the news of this video, disagrees with Sanchez's interpretation.

Republican polls, such as one commissioned by the American Action Network, have put Tran within the margin of error. And while some political insiders wondered whether Sanchez would overlook Tran and this race with her eye potentially on a future gubernatorial run, those doubts about whether Sanchez would take this race seriously seem to have been erased, as she had already gone negative against Tran even before her controversial Univision comment. Sanchez had by then released an ad attacking Tran and implying that he has pocketed tax-payer stipends to help finance his home in Sacramento.

Tran has also not been without controversy in recent years. In August of 2009, he arrived at the scene of an accident involving his protégé, councilman Andy Quach, and questions later arose about whether Tran was attempting to interfere in the police investigation of the accident. Details remain hazy, but if Sanchez starts hammering Tran on what may have happened that night, it could indicate that her internal polls show she's in trouble.

Bottom line: Sanchez has many advantages in this race. There are more registered Democrats in her district than Republicans. She has name recognition across all communities, particularly the Mexican-American one, but this community is fickle when it comes to turning out at the polls; plus, independent candidate Cecilia Iglesias may peel off some Hispanic voters. Sanchez also has a fundraising advantage. But in midterm elections, only the passionate turn out to vote. And Tran will hope to turn out two equally passionate voters this cycle: voters angry at incumbents and Vietnamese residents eager to elect one of their own to national office. If Tran pulls off the upset against Sanchez, it'll probably be a sign of a larger GOP tidal wave.