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Derek Tran meets with voters

Dems go outside to flip a key Orange County House seat

WESTMINSTER, Calif. — In the heart of Little Saigon, Democrat Derek Tran is being mobbed by Vietnamese-American well-wishers. A group of voters in their 80s are enthused to see a fellow Vietnamese-American running for Congress in a district that has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country.

One attendee, however, has a question. “Who’s the candidate?” he asks. Tran’s campaign staff quickly introduced the voter to the candidate, but it’s an illustration of the challenges Tran faces as a political newcomer in his bid to unseat Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.).

Tran — an attorney who co-owns a pharmacy with his wife — came out of obscurity to advance to the general election in California’s competitive 45th District. Democrats believe the newcomer Tran has a shot at beating Steel because of his compelling background as the son of Vietnamese political refugees.

The numbers show there’s an opportunity for a Democratic win, given the right circumstances. President Joe Biden won the district by six points in 2020, its Cook PVI is D+2 and a third of voters aren’t registered with either party.

But knocking off Steel — a prolific fundraiser who boasts a strong ground game in the Orange County district — will be an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, Tran sees vulnerabilities in Steel’s background story. Steel’s parents fled the North Korean Communist regime, but Steel herself moved to the United States to get a higher education.

Speaking to us at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, surrounded by references to the 1975 fall of Saigon, Tran said Steel’s story won’t resonate with the Vietnamese community this cycle.

“​​Michelle still tries to run on that she’s a refugee or she tried to flee communism. No, that’s not true at all,” Tran said. “She came to this country for economic gain. That’s not the same as losing one’s country after the fall of Saigon in ‘75 and having no home.”

Although Tran is decidedly not in the top tier of flip opportunities in California, like Will Rollins, George Whitesides, Rudy Salas or Adam Gray, national Democrats are starting to invest in the race.

Tran said the DCCC is funding two outreach campaign offices in the district, in addition to a larger canvassing resource center.

Building an apparatus that will rival Steel’s vaunted on-the-ground operation won’t be easy, however.

Following the spring primary, Steel enjoyed a massive $3 million cash-on-hand advantage over Tran. After spending close to zero to win the primary by hundreds of votes, Tran’s campaign reported just under $200,000 on hand at the end of March.

When we stopped by Steel’s campaign headquarters in Buena Park on Saturday afternoon, a small army of high school volunteers were returning from a canvassing session. Steel is running on a focused economic message. Her “Lower Taxes” and “Stop Inflation” campaign signs are omnipresent in the district.

“Our volunteers just came back from the walk and what we’ve been hearing about is how inflation, gas prices, are high, high,” Steel told us.

Walking through the Source, a Korean mall in the heart of the district, with Steel and her husband Shawn Steel is a clinic in retail politics. The political power couple — Shawn Steel is an influential former California Republican Party chair — greeted store owners and shoppers alike.

In addition to economics, Steel is attacking Democrats on the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“In my district, 41% of constituents are first-generation immigrants. So they all came here legally. Me too,” Steel said. “They’re really watching who is coming in, and I think we should vet these people before they come in.”

While Tran says House Republicans should embrace the bipartisan Senate border security and immigration deal, Steel brushed that bill off as a bureaucratic mess that won’t solve the issue.

We’ll have much more on the border dynamic in California next week.

— Max Cohen

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.