Can Asian Voters Carry a Democrat to Congress in the Houston Suburbs?

Sri Kulkarni is running one of the most innovative campaigns in the country. If he succeeds, he’ll have created proof of concept for the party’s future.

Sri Kulkarni
Sri Kulkarni Justin Miller

Political candidates don’t usually stray too far from the traditional campaign strategies of their respective parties. When they do, it’s worth paying attention. That’s why Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign has fascinated so many. It’s also why you should pay attention to Sri Preston Kulkarni and his bid to flip a Republican district in the heart of Houston suburbia.

Pete Olson has represented the 22nd Congressional District, which encompasses suburbs to the south and west like Sugar Land, Pearland and Katy, since 2008. It’s been a fairly safe Republican seat: Trump beat Clinton by nearly 8 percentage points. Olson beat a Democratic no-name candidate by 20 percentage points in 2016.

But Kulkarni is not trying to win with your typical triangulation and centrist hemming and hawing. Instead, he’s running an innovative outreach campaign that hopes to activate the district’s huge Asian-American population. Fort Bend County, which anchors the district, is growing at a breakneck pace and as it’s become a beacon of ethnic diversity, it’s also trending blue.

Democrats have never made a concerted effort to turn out Asian-Americans in the area — it’s a fragmented and low-turnout population. But Kulkarni has raised an army of volunteers who speak more than a dozen Asian languages, and he’s broken down the voter file to micro-target people by their native tongue or regional heritage.

Kulkarni has raised more than $1 million, far more than any Democrat who has run in that district, while swearing off corporate PAC money. And he is focusing his campaign on health care, public education and gun control.

Olson, meanwhile, is a tea-party Republican with campaign coffers filled with corporate money. He’s not used to having to work for re-election and he is confident that the seat will remain his. At a campaign event over the summer, he called Kulkarni — who moved back to run in the district after working for years as a state department foreign service officer — a “liberal, liberal, liberal Indo-American who is a carpetbagger.” He promised to “kick my opponent’s ass in November.”

Demographics are not automatic destiny — Democrats have learned that the hard way. You have to put in the work, and Kulkarni’s campaign is certainly doing that. If he succeeds, or even makes it close, he’ll have created proof of concept for the party’s future.

Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].

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Published at 8:05 am CST