For Dave Min, Election Day was a wake-up call. President Donald Trump’s travel ban was a catalyst.
The Orange County, California, law professor and former DC political hand had never seriously considered running for office and had no real organization behind him. But as the son of two Korean immigrants, Min felt the President’s decision to temporarily suspend immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries “was a huge slap in the face.”
“It felt very personal being the son of immigrants myself to feel like this country was going to single out people based on their country of origin and their religion,” Min told CNN in an interview.
While Min felt pulled to run for office, he conceded it was a tough decision. “Last fall, I was coaching soccer and barbecuing every chance I could get – I was a total dad,” he said. “But on the other hand, the stakes are so high. The soul of America is at stake right now.”
Min ran the numbers: In a highly educated, affluent district where Latinos and Asians make up a quarter of voters, he believes Democrats can win if they can turn out voters like him.
“A campaign by me would present a unique profile that would be able to capture a lot of votes,” Min said. “As someone put it to me, you can bring out votes that other candidates can’t get.”
Min, who is challenging Republican Rep. Mimi Walters, is part of a powerful groundswell of young, largely progressive, candidates of color entering politics for the first time in forceful opposition to Trump, energized and driven by policies that they say are dangerous to minority communities. And a phalanx of organizers in communities across the country are hoping to turn the energy into electoral victories.
Varun Nikore, the president of AAPI Victory Fund, said there is a record number of Asian American Pacific Islander candidates running for Congress this year, with as many as 60 potentially on the ballot in 2018.
Run For Something, a national group started after the election to recruit and train Democratic candidates, has recruited more than 15,000 potential candidates, according to co-founder Amanda Litman, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer. Two-thirds of those candidates are women, and one-third identify as persons of color.
‘Standing with my sisters’ and against Trump
Of the Democrats running to unseat Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren in his suburban Illinois district, Lauren Underwood is the only person of color and only woman in the mix.
The registered nurse and adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration said that while she’d spent her life in public service and thought she might seek office herself one day, she didn’t expect 2018 to be her year.
But then Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, giving Republicans full control of Washington. And Hultgren, who Underwood says promised not to vote for a Republican health care bill that excluded coverage for pre-existing conditions, did it anyway. That was when Underwood knew she was in.
“I feel like every day there’s a battle for the core of our democracy,” she said. ‘People are stepping up and doing things they’ve never done before.”
Underwood’s district is more than 85% white – she said she’s “not a traditional candidate” coming out of a district like hers, and that her candidacy was a “surprise” to many traditional African-American political groups.
“African-Americans have traditionally been elected to Congress from those Voting Rights Act Districts … that have traditionally represented, all-African-American or majority-African American districts,” she said.
She secured early support from groups on the rise like Higher Heights for America, a group with the goal of electing more black women to office; and the Collective PAC, which recruits and supports progressive black candidates.
“Black women as candidates don’t get the attention that they deserve or need to really propel their candidacies forward,” Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a co-founder of Higher Heights, told CNN. “Just about every black woman that we have talked to has been told, it’s not your turn. That, I think, is probably the No. 1 barrier.”
National Democrats can be slow to help
A number of African-American progressive organizers tell CNN that traditional donors and party gatekeepers often weigh in late in the process on behalf of black Democrats, leaving them at a disadvantage when pitted against well-funded white opponents in contested primaries.
Stefanie Brown James, the co-founder of Collective PAC, agreed and said that her group wants to help make black progressive Democrats more visible, particularly to deep-pocketed donors that can sustain campaigns.
“Especially if you’re running for Congress, you need that money fast, you need it early and you need it often,” James, who was the national African-American vote director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, told CNN.
Collective PAC has already endorsed 18 candidates, with plans to unveil a new slate of endorsed candidates soon. In the coming weeks the group will also roll out its national finance council with a goal of raising more money for black progressives, particularly from African-American donors.
“We feel it’s very important for us to make sure that these black candidates become known and top of mind for individual donors to target their consistent support,” James said.
Underwood said that the grassroots movement has been critical.
“It’s special for me being a young woman, a young woman of color to stand with my sisters in this time,” she said. “In this time of resistance, activist groups are really led by women. They’ve sustained our campaign. They’re our donors, they’ve been that groundswell support that’s buoyed our campaign.”
‘The greatest Latino political organizer in history’
Mai Khanh Tran, a Southern California pediatrician, is battling one of the nation’s worst flu seasons. She’s also the only woman running in the Democratic primary to replace Republican Ed Royce, who announced earlier this year that he does not plan to seek re-election.
Tran, who was born in Vietnam and came to the United States at age 9, said that on the day after the election she didn’t want to go into work.
“But I did what most women do,” she said. “I went in to take care of my patients.”
That day, one of her patients was a young child with a brain tumor whose family had just gotten insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. With Republicans in control of Washington, the family could lose that coverage.
After Election Day, Tran began to speak publicly about the need to protect the Affordable Care Act, but when she saw Royce vote to repeal it, she began to be able to see herself in Congress.
“It was really the vote that was in Congress by our representative that showed me the need for someone like me, a mom, a fierce mom, a dedicated doctor, to really run for Congress,” Tran told CNN.
Since announcing her campaign in a district that Clinton won that district by 9 points in 2016, Tran has secured the backing of groups like AAPI Victory and EMILY’s List, among others.
EMILY’s List said earlier this week that more than 30,000 women interested in running for office have contacted the group – just 920 did so during the 2016 election cycle.
“2018 is not only about record number, it’s also about historic firsts,” said EMILY’s List executive director Emily Cain, adding that the group “fully intends to elect the first-ever Latinas in Illinois and Texas.”
This year’s slate of minority candidates also show how the groups backing them are working more closely together to change the complexion of politics in the US.
Varun Nikore, the president of AAPI Victory Fund, said that his group will be working more seamlessly with other ethnic groups “because we think there’s more power in this coalition process … but also because we need the establishment to pay better attention to communities of color.”
Mayra Macias, the political director for Latino Victory Project agreed, adding that of the districts targeted by the national party establishment are districts with heavy Latino populations, and that Latino Victory is working to field candidates in those competitive districts.
“Very often, the line was there aren’t Latinos for these seats, so we’re just going to have to go with a candidate that’s already filed,” she said. “Given the energy on the ground, that’s not the case. There are people excited and ready to run.”
“The silver lining for us this year is we’re seeing that Donald Trump may be the greatest Latino political organizer in history,” Macias said.