Asian Americans have typically formed a crucial and reliable voting bloc for Democrats in recent years, helping the party maintain its political dominance in liberal states like New York.
But Republicans shattered that presumption in November when they came within striking distance of winning the governor’s race in New York for the first time in 15 years, buoyed in part by a surge of support among Asian American voters in southern Brooklyn and eastern Queens..
Now, Democrats are trying to determine how they can stem — and, if possible, reverse — the growing tide of Asian American voters drifting away from the party amid a feeling that their concerns are being overlooked.
Interviews with more than 20 voters of Asian descent, many of them Chinese Americans who had historically voted for Democrats but did not in 2022, found that many went with the Republican candidate for governor, Lee Zeldin, even if begrudgingly, largely because of concerns about crime.
One lifelong Democrat from Queens, Karen Wang, 48, who is Chinese American, said she had never felt as unsafe as she did these days. “Being Asian, I felt I had a bigger target on my back,” she said.
“My vote,” she added, “was purely a message to Democrats: Don’t take my vote for granted.”
Besides crime, Asian American voters expressed concern over a proposal by former Mayor Bill de Blasio to change the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools.
Democratic leaders, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, have acknowledged their party’s failure to offer an effective message about public safety to counter Republicans’ tough-on-crime platform, which resonated not just with Asian Americans, but with a constellation of voters statewide.
In Flushing, Queens, home to one of New York City’s most vibrant Chinatowns, homespun leaflets posted on walls in English and Chinese encouraged passers-by to “Vote for Republicans” before the November election, blaming Democrats for illegal immigration and a rise in crime.
One flier portrayed Ms. Hochul as anti-police and sought to link her to the death of Christina Yuna Lee, who was fatally stabbed more than 40 times by a homeless man inside her apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown last February.
Over Zoom, a group of 13 Chinese American friends, most of them retired union workers, met regularly to discuss the election before casting their ballots. A mix of Republicans, Democrats and political independents, they all voted for Mr. Zeldin.
Although Mr. Zeldin lost, his support among Asian American voters helped lift other Republican candidates to surprise victories in down-ballot legislative races.
In one of the southern Brooklyn districts with a majority of Asian American voters, Peter J. Abbate Jr., a 36-year Democratic incumbent, lost to Lester Chang, the first Asian American Republican to enter the State Legislature.
Mr. Chang’s entrance, however, was clouded by questions about his legal residency, prompting the ruling Assembly Democrats to consider trying to expel him. They ultimately decided not to seek his expulsion, with one lawmaker, Assemblyman Ron Kim, noting that such a move would have provoked a “strong backlash from the Asian community.”
For Democrats, repairing ties with Asian American voters, who account for about 15 percent of New York City’s population and make up the state’s fastest-growing ethnic group, may be a difficult yet critical challenge given the significant role such voters are poised to play in future elections.
State Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat, said that Mr. Zeldin’s campaign message on the crime issue “simply resonated better,” and that Democrats had to improve the way they communicated with Asian Americans, particularly on education policy.
“Democrats can begin by understanding the Asian American perspective more deeply,” said Mr. Liu, who was born in Taiwan. “The broader issue is that many of the social justice issues in this country are still viewed from a Black and white lens, and Asian Americans are simply undetected by that lens and therefore feel completely marginalized.”
Republicans performed well in parts of New York City with the largest Asian American populations, drawing voters who said they were concerned primarily with public safety, especially amid a spate of high-profile hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.
In Assembly District 49 in Brooklyn, for example, which includes portions of Sunset Park and Dyker Heights, and is majority Asian, Mr. Zeldin won 61 percent of the vote, even though it appears white voters turned out to vote in higher numbers. Mr. Zeldin won by similar margins in a nearby Assembly district that is heavily Chinese and includes Bensonhurst and Gravesend.
In Queens, Mr. Zeldin managed to obtain 51 percent of the vote in Assembly District 40, which includes Flushing and is about 70 percent Asian: mostly Chinese and Korean immigrants.
Support for Mr. Zeldin, who came within six percentage points of beating Ms. Hochul, was palpable across those neighborhoods before Election Day, with much of the pro-Republican enthusiasm appearing to grow organically. And posts in support of Mr. Zeldin spread broadly across WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging app widely used by Chinese Americans.
Interviews with Asian American voters revealed that their discontent with the Democratic Party was, in many cases, deep-rooted and based on frustrations built over years. Many of them described becoming disillusioned with a party that they said had overlooked their support and veered too far to the left. They listed Democratic priorities related to education, criminal justice and illegal immigration as favoring other minority groups over Asian Americans, and blamed Democratic policies for a rise in certain crimes and for supporting safe injection sites.
Voters traced their sense of betrayal in part to a divisive 2018 proposal by Mayor de Blasio, a Democrat, to alter the admissions process for the city’s elite high schools, several of which are dominated by Asian American students, to increase enrollment among Black and Hispanic students.
The plan would have effectively reduced the number of Asian American students offered spots at the elite schools, which made some Asian Americans feel that Democrats were targeting them.
Mayor Eric Adams, Mr. de Blasio’s successor, moved away from his predecessor’s plan to diversify the city’s top schools, but the effort galvanized Asian Americans politically, prompting parents to become more engaged and laying the groundwork for Republicans to make inroads among aggrieved voters. Indeed, one vocal political club that emerged from the education debate, the Asian Wave Alliance, actively campaigned for Mr. Zeldin.
“Why should I support Democrats who discriminate against me?” said Lailing Yu, 59, a mother from Hong Kong whose son graduated from a specialized high school in 2018. “We see Democrats are working for the interest of African Americans and Latino communities against Asian communities.”
After years as a registered Democrat, Ms. Lu switched her party registration to Republican last year and voted for Mr. Zeldin. She ticked off a litany of recent instances of street violence — including one involving a stranger who spit at her while she was taking out her trash — that she said made her feel less safe now than when she arrived in the United States 50 years ago.
“I think what upset me to see Asian Americans veer right is that they were swayed by fear and fear alone,” said Representative Grace Meng, a Queens Democrat of Taiwanese descent. “It’s important that we are working with the Asian American community, but also with our leaders up and down the ballot to make sure they’re listening and responsive to our concerns, which is not just substance, but outreach, especially during campaigns.”
Sam Ni, a father of two high school students, began shifting to the right after the debate over high school admissions. He described the city’s diversification effort as an attempt to “punish” Asian American students.
Mr. Ni said fears over subway crime had disrupted his daily life and further estranged him from the Democratic Party. His wife, he said, recently began to drive the couple’s son to school from southern Brooklyn to Upper Manhattan, forcing her to spend hours in traffic instead of working at the computer store the family owns in Sunset Park.
“If I told my son to go to the subway, we will worry about it,” said Mr. Ni, 45, who was a Democrat since immigrating to the United States from China in 2001 but who switched parties and voted for President Donald J. Trump in 2020.
This year, Mr. Ni decided to play an active role in getting other Asian Americans to the polls: He helped organize an effort that raised about $12,000 to print get-out-the-vote banners, fliers and bags in English and Chinese.
“If you don’t vote, don’t complain,” read the signs, a slogan that also spread on WeChat and other social media platforms. The message did not explicitly urge voters to back Mr. Zeldin, whom Mr. Ni voted for, but the materials were passed out primarily at rallies for Mr. Zeldin in the city’s Chinese neighborhoods.
There were also larger forces at play.
A week before the election, Asian American voters in New York City received mailings that appeared to be race-based. They accused the Biden administration and left-wing officials of embracing policies related to job qualifications and college admissions that “engaged in widespread racial discrimination against white and Asian Americans.”
The mailings, part of a national Republican-aligned campaign targeting Asian American voters, were distributed by America First Legal, a group founded by Stephen Miller, a former top adviser to Mr. Trump who helped craft the president’s hard-line immigration policies.
Democratic officials said they believed that many Asian Americans that voted Republican tended to be East Asian, particularly Chinese voters who may be more culturally conservative. Republicans may have also found success among first-generation immigrants who may not be as attuned to the history of racial inequity that has led Democrats to enact policies that Republicans have targeted, such as reforms to New York’s bail laws.
Mr. Zeldin also made a point of meeting with, and raising money from, Asian American leaders and activists. The approach helped him win — and, in some cases, run up the vote — in many districts dominated by Asian American voters and enabled him to chip into Ms. Hochul’s overwhelming support in the rest of the city.
Even so, some Asian American leaders noted that Mr. Zeldin’s near singular focus on crime — his campaign framed the election in existential terms: “Vote like your life depends on it, because it does” — allowed him to run up his numbers across many voting groups, including white and suburban voters, not just Asian Americans.
Many Democratic officials noted Ms. Hochul’s effort to rally Asian American voters in the campaign’s closing weeks, but characterized the push as too little, too late.
After the election, the governor acknowledged that Democrats had fallen short in communicating their message about public safety to Asian American voters, saying that “more could have been done to make sure that people know that this was a high priority of ours.”
“Obviously, that was not successful in certain communities who were hearing other voices and seeing other messaging and seeing other advertising with a contrary message about our priorities,” Ms. Hochul said in November after signing two bills aimed at curbing hate crimes.