Loretta Sanchez told Univision that “the Vietnamese” are trying to steal her seat. | AP Photo Close

By JAMES HOHMANN | 9/25/10 8:58 PM EDT

GARDEN GROVE, Calif.—Rep. Loretta Sanchez wanted to fire up her Latino base when she told Univision, in Spanish, that “the Vietnamese” are trying to steal her seat.

Instead, the vulnerable Democrat created a backlash that could undercut gains she’s made during a 14-year courtship of Little Saigon and gave her Vietnamese opponent, Republican Van Tran, a much-needed opening to galvanize an ethnic base that’s splintered away from his party in recent years.

“The Vietnamese and the Republicans are, with an intensity, trying to take this seat from which we have done so much for our community — to take this seat and give it to this Van Tran, who is very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic,” Sanchez, 50, said in an interview that aired nationally Sept. 19 on Jorge Ramos’ political talk show “Al Punto.”

Sanchez, one of only six Latinas in Congress, has positioned herself as a powerful moderate and long flirted with runs for statewide office. Her unvarnished comments spotlight an epic turnout war that’s brewing in this Orange County district, which includes Disneyland, between Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants (and their offspring).

Vietnamese-Americans voted almost monolithically Republican during the Reagan era, but the younger generation has strayed toward Democrats. The fervent anti-communism that drew émigrés into the GOP orbit became less salient after the opening of diplomatic relations 15 years ago. Tran, a 45-year-old who fled Saigon with his parents a week before Saigon fell in 1975, needs an overwhelming margin of victory among the group to topple a powerful incumbent in a majority Hispanic district.

Obviously sensing an opportunity to galvanize the Vietnamese, Tran’s campaign demanded an apology from Sanchez for “insensitive racist attacks against her own constituents.”

As the situation escalated, Sanchez held a damage-control press conference Friday evening to say she “used a poor choice of words.” Then she chided Tran for taking “a cheap political shot.”

“Let me say as clearly as I can that if, through my inarticulate use of the language, I offended anyone, I apologize for those remarks,” she said. “For my opponent to call me racist, well, I cannot sit back without responding to this truly offensive allegation.”

The extent to which Tran capitalizes on Sanchez’s misstep—getting big play locally and lighting up the blogosphere—to run up his margin among Vietnamese voters poses a crucial test of whether the Republican Party more broadly can hold on to one of its two most loyal ethnic constituencies. The other, Cubans, will be checked in Florida, where Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio expects his ethnic background to give him a bulky base of support in a three-way race.

A crummy economy, which primarily accounts for independents souring on Democrats, obscures the disquieting demographic reality that came into view after the 2008 election: the GOP remains too white, too male and too old for its long-term health. If Republicans are to be resurgent, the party must lock down the Vietnamese and Cubans, at least. And if Tran and Rubio can’t win in this climate, when can they?

On the surface, judging by the numbers, Sanchez should win easily. Hispanics make up around 70 percent of the population; Vietnamese are closer to 10 percent. She won her last five elections with more than 60 percent, which is how much President Barack Obama carried the district with in 2008.

The inland district runs along Interstate 5 through the heart of Orange County, centered about 35 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Mexican immigrants congregate more toward Santa Ana, the biggest city, and the Vietnamese live primarily in Garden Grove and Westminster. It’s the district where Sam Seaborn ran for Congress in the fictional “West Wing” series.

Tran sees a path to victory in high Vietnamese turnout and relatively low Latino turnout. Hispanics make up slightly more than 40 percent of the district’s registered voters; Vietnamese are about 15 percent.

Overall turnout in 2006, the last midterm election, was less than 40 percent—one of the lowest rates in the country. Sanchez received fewer votes than any other winning congressional candidate in 2002, and she’s consistently been among the top five winners with the fewest votes in both presidential and midterm elections.

“So based on our calculations, we can literally take this district—being generous—with 45,000 votes,” Tran told a group of supporters this summer.

For context, recent data showed there are 33,395 registered Vietnamese voters.

Tran brags about voter registration efforts he’s championed for the last two decades to get Vietnamese immigrants on the rolls. He calls it “grubby” and “not very sexy” but “extremely important.”

“He does have a machine that he’s built,” said State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, the conservative who lost in the Republican Senate primary in June to Carly Fiorina. “We have been trying for years to find somebody with the ties to the community and the wherewithal to beat Loretta Sanchez … I would imagine the (Vietnamese) turnout numbers are probably going to be three to four times the percentage of Latino voter turnout.”

Democrats worry that the late entry of an independent candidate with Republican links in her recent past, Salvadoran native Cecilia Iglesias, will siphon off a percent of the Latino vote from Sanchez. In a tight race, that could make the difference.

This is all heating up against a sensitive backdrop. In October 2006, staff of the Republican nominee against Sanchez (also Vietnamese) sent letters to 14,000 voters with Spanish surnames warning that immigrants could not vote and suggesting those who did could be deported. That candidate, Tan Nguyen, said the letter was mistranslated. Nguyen was indicted for lying to investigators. The jury deadlocked in August, and a federal prosecutor announced plans this month to retry the case.

The district is difficult to poll because of the relatively small English-speaking population, but the Republican-leaning American Action Forum released results in late August showing Sanchez leading 45 percent to 43 percent, within the margin of error. The Cook Political Report, calling it “the only real race in southern California,” has switched its assessment of the contest from “Likely Democrat” to the more competitive “Lean Democrat.”

Sanchez works it

Sanchez, in her seventh term, has known for a long time that Tran was preparing to take her on. A field rep wrote her a memo in 2004 warning that Tran would be term-limited out of the state Assembly this year and that this would be the logical next step.

But she had started wooing the community long before Tran emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Her office sent a six-page fact sheet [http://www.politico.com/static/PPM169_sanchez.html] detailing what she’s done each year since coming to Washington. She co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, for instance, and she’s consistently taken a hard line on human rights in the country. It’s earned her the enmity of the Vietnamese government, which blocked her from traveling into the country with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July.

She’s also focused on fostering personal connections, from wearing native garb at the annual Tet Festival to dedicating significant staff time to relevant casework.

That’s helped yield results: Republicans still have the registration advantage, with 41 percent, but it’s waning. Twenty-eight percent of registered Vietnamese voters in the district are now Democrats. Twenty-seven percent are decline-to-state — California’s term for independents.

Nationally, 2008 polling gave Sanchez hope for the future. Vietnamese were the only Asian subgroup that backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but an Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund survey of 11 states found that 69 percent of U.S.-born Vietnamese and 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds supported Obama.

These crosscurrents are at play within the district, where three people epitomize the challenges Tran faces as he attempts to shore up his base over the next five weeks.

The Democrat

Ironically, the Vietnamese candidate in the race to replace Tran in the Assembly is a Democrat. Phu Nguyen, 33, came over at age 4. His parents, ardent Republicans, own a 30-branch money transfer business — the Vietnamese equivalent of Western Union.

He got linked up with Democratic causes in college, and signs of assimilation convince him that Democrats can overtake Republicans in registration a decade from now.

“That’s what’s changing in this area: we live together,” he said, laying out his case over lunch. “Our kids go to the same schools. The communities have historically been divided.”

Sanchez was one of the first to endorse Nguyen when he announced his candidacy.

“If you look at the needs of the Vietnamese community…social services…the values of the Democratic Party are more in line,” Nguyen said. “I can look out for my dad, but who is going to look out for his employees?”

The Republican

Tran has burned bridges with some prominent Republicans in the Vietnamese community.

A 2007 Orange County Board of Supervisors race was a political turning point. Two of four candidates were Vietnamese in a winner-take-all special election. Observers expected the divided vote to let the white or Latino win. But Vietnamese voters cast about 40 percent of the ballots, and the two ethnic candidates finished first and second.

Tran’s pick narrowly lost to Janet Nguyen, another Republican. In 2008, he campaigned against Nguyen again. She won anyway.

Then Tran accused Nguyen of being a communist sympathizer.

The episode drove up Tran’s negatives and showed the limitations of his power. Nguyen’s now the chairwoman of the county board, with a power base distinct from his.

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