GOP Rep. Michelle Steel is facing one challenger from the left and one from the right in her bid for a second term in Congress, with forecasters saying the newly drawn 45th District is the one local House race that’s a straight toss-up.
Of those challengers, Democrat Jay Chen, who runs a real estate firm and is an intelligence officer in the Navy reserves, is heavily favored to advance with Steel out of the June 7 primary. The top two vote-getters in June will face off in the November general election, when voters in the new, Little Saigon-centered district will decide which of the vastly different candidates will represent them for the next two years.
The other challenger, Republican Long Pham, an engineer from Fountain Valley, is focusing his campaign efforts on targeting Steel — particularly in the local Vietnamese community — in hopes of winning over GOP voters in the primary.
While Pham has some local name recognition as a former trustee on the Orange County Board of Education, political experts don’t expect him to overtake Steel in the primary, given her advantages in campaign funds and incumbency. But they say Pham’s attacks could force Steel to spend more in the primary and chip away at her support in ways that might impact the general election.
Republicans face a 5-point deficit in voter registration in the C-shaped district that starts in Fountain Valley, curves north to pick up Cerritos in Los Angeles County and rounds out in Placentia. At the same time, all Democrats are heading into this year’s elections handicapped by high inflation and the long-term history of both parties struggling during midterms when they control the White House.
It all adds up to what’s sure to be a pricey and competitive race.
Steel, 66, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was a young woman, was dealt perhaps the worst redistricting hand among all local House incumbents.
The district she currently represents — which includes Orange County’s northern coastal areas and much of Little Saigon — leans red.
But late last year, when new district lines were announced, some Orange County incumbents were shuffled around. Democratic Rep. Katie Porter’s Irvine home was drawn into the newly reimagined coastal district, and she soon announced she’d be running there. So Steel switched over to say she’d run in the new CA-45, though her home, in Seal Beach, is just outside the district’s boundaries and the new district leans blue.
Since beating Democratic incumbent Harley Rouda to win her current seat, in 2020, Steel has focused much of her attention on trying to push back against China, deal with supply chain logjams and expand telehealth access, with some related bills signed into law. Her proudest moment to date, she said, was “testifying in the Senate and House Judiciary Committees in support of the AAPI community and against discrimination and hate.”
In this campaign, Steel is touting plans to secure the border, combat homelessness, create jobs and lower inflation.
“We need to rein in government spending and lower taxes on the American people,” she said.
But aside from the attention that comes with being one of the first Korean American women in Congress, veteran political consultant Adam Probolsky of Newport Beach said Steel hasn’t done much to distinguish herself as a particularly effective leader in her first term.
She’s drawn criticism for appearing to stick to GOP talking points, causing her to fumble in some interviews. And some of her votes, such as opposing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, have made her a target of Democratic groups.
In terms of political ideology, Steel rated herself a five on a scale of 1-10, with one being far left and five being centrist.
Pham positioned himself far to the right of Steel on that scale, with a score of nine, while Chen gave himself a four.
Chen, 44, is the son of Taiwanese immigrants. He joined a global consulting firm after graduating from Harvard University, then opened a real estate firm that manages commercial and residential properties. He’s also been in the Navy Reserves since 2010 and was on active duty leading an intelligence team in Kuwait from 2019 to 2020.
Chen first ran for office in 2007, when he was elected to the Hacienda La Puente Unified School Board. In 2015, he won a seat on the Board of Trustees at Mt. San Antonio College, where he still serves.
His first run for Congress was in 2012, when he joined a heated race in CA-39 against longtime GOP incumbent Ed Royce. Chen lost to Royce, earning 42.2% of the vote in a district that at the time still leaned heavily red. He started out in 2021 campaigning against Rep. Young Kim, but after redistricting he pivoted to run in CA-45 against Steel.
Chen’s campaign is focused on issues such as infrastructure, education, women’s rights and support for small businesses.
“I want to work towards ensuring that all of our children have access to the same opportunities that a good education and the Navy provided me,” he said. “We may disagree on how to get there, but my success should be measured by my transparency, accessibility and compassion.”
Chen’s biggest challenges, Probolsky predicted, will be name recognition and the conditions that might favor Republicans this cycle.
Chen also is facing accusations of racism from Steel’s campaign and GOP leaders over comments he made during an April 7 appearance at a church in Fountain Valley. In the speech, Chen said “you kind of need an interpreter” to figure out what Steel is saying.
Advocates for Steel, for whom English is her third language, said Chen was mocking her accent. House minority leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, on Thursday, April 14, called on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to drop its support of Chen over the incident — something the group is not expected to do.
A spokesman for Chen noted he was referring to a written transcript of Steel’s speech, where accent isn’t a factor. And he said Chen was criticizing what he termed Steel’s “nonsensical” responses to questions, not her fluency in English.
Like Steel, Chen also currently doesn’t live in CA-45. But unlike her, if elected, Chen said he’ll move to the district.
The only CA-45 candidate who does now live in the district is Pham, who joined the race on the final day of filing.
Pham, 71, is an engineer who previously worked at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. He’s run for office roughly a dozen times, most recently for Assembly in 2018 when he finished a distant fourth in the primary. He won office once, in 2008, and served a term on the Orange County Board of Education. And Pham — who said he’s managing and can bankroll his own campaign — notes he’s seen some success in lobbying for legislative issues at the state and national levels over the years.
In terms of measuring his success in office, Pham said, “California has the nation’s highest taxes and much less federal benefits in return. The success of an office holder in the House of Representatives is his/her ability to bring back more federal benefits to the local area.”
Pham and Steel agree on many issues along party lines, such as opposing abortion and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But Pham logged some views to the right of Steel, such as refusing to acknowledge President Joe Biden as the true winner of the 2020 election while Steel said he was.
Pham and his supporters are trying to use such views to label Steel as a “RINO” or “Republican in name only.” He notes that Steel has voted against the GOP majority a handful of times, including when she supported a bill that aimed to prevent financial discrimination against LGBTQ business owners and when she was one of 26 Republicans who supported equal access to contraception for veterans.
While Steel still votes against Biden’s position more than 80% of the time, per a tracker from FiveThirtyEight, she touts voting her conscience.
“Public service is about selflessness, and I am proud to be a member of Congress that votes only for her constituents, not for her party leadership, the media, or national notoriety.”
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, Chen believes it should be expanded, Pham says it should be repealed and Steel declined to answer the question.
On tackling climate change, Pham supports less aggressive government policies, Chen supports much more aggressive policies and Steel skipped the question.
When asked how they’d vote if the question of gay marriage ever came before Congress, Chen said he’d support it, Pham said he’d oppose it and Steel declined to respond.
Elections officials will begin mailing ballots to all registered voters May 9. Centers will open for in-person voting starting May 28. Visit OCVote.gov to learn more.
Source: Orange County Register