At a recent fundraising event in Irvine, Dave Min positioned himself as a progressive, anti-Trump congressional candidate for California's 45th District, which is represented by Republican Mimi Walters.
Min decided to run for office after hearing about Trump's travel ban, calling it "the beginning of an assault on the American dream." Min recently earned Democratic endorsement after receiving 60 percent of votes from Democrats in his district at the California Democratic Party Convention.
If Min wins, he will be only the second Korean American U.S. representative. He is part of a larger shift that includes not only candidates, but the entire Korean American electorate, as a group traditionally composed of religious conservatives becomes more liberal. According to the National Asian American Survey, the percentage of Korean Americans identifying as Democrats increased from 37 to 54 percent from 2008 to 2016.
John Yi, president of the Korean American Democratic Committee, says this is a generational divide, as second-generation Korean Americans rely less on the church to determine their political values.
"I think this is really shifting with the second generation. Religion is still a big thing [in the Korean American community], but definitely the values of the second generation – even churchgoers – are not in sync with the first generation."
That generational shift is not unique to the Korean community, says Pyong Gap Min (no relation to candidate Dave Min), director of the Research Center for Korean Community at Queens College in New York City.
"Many young Korean Americans have dropped from their parents' religion. Like white Americans, Korean American parents have difficulty translating their religion to their children," Min said.
Min could be the first Korean American in Congress since Jay Kim ended his term representing California's 41st District in 1999. Last year, Robert Lee Ahn, candidate for California's 34th District, came close to Congress but ultimately lost to Jimmy Gomez.
Kim is a Republican; Min and Lee Ahn are Democrats. According to Yi, this ideological difference demonstrates a new generation of liberal Korean American candidates.
"I don't know how global of a shift it is, but definitely the younger generation of candidates, like Lee Ahn and Kim, are not your stereotypical first-generation Korean Americans. With the rising generation of Korean Americans, you will see more candidates like this, that don't have as much of the conservative values," Yi said.
This shift could influence Min's district. The 45th District includes the city of Irvine, which has the third-largest proportion of Korean American voters in California.
Asian Americans overall are increasingly supporting the Democratic party – every presidential election since 1992 has included an increase in Asian American votes for the Democratic candidate. This increase is at least in part coming from second-generation Asian Americans; half as many U.S.-born Asian Americans voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election than foreign-born Asian Americans. Among Korean Americans, this can be partially attributed to different values among the first and second generation.
More than 60 percent of the Korean American population identifies as Protestant – a group that normally leans Republican. However, the electorate as a whole appears to be holding onto these conservative values, while simultaneously identifying with the Democratic Party. While Korean Americans mostly identify with the Democratic Party, just 22 percent of Korean American voters identify as "liberal or very liberal," compared with 44 percent who identify as "conservative or very conservative."
"A lot of second-generation [Korean Americans] grew up at a time in when civil rights issues became more prominent, from LGBT issues to Black Lives Matter, those were really shaping us as we were growing up as kids. Second-generation Korean Americans can relate with these, so as a result their politics lean more Democratic as adults," Yi said.
Pyong Gap Min added, "Many second-generation [Korean Americans] are definitely more liberal, they are more sensitive to racism, and lean towards the Democratic Party. . . the emergence of this second generation in the electorate is causing a drop in the number of Korean Republicans."
On the other hand, Yi says the politics and values of first-generation Korean Americans were largely shaped by the church.
"It was through the church that [Korean immigrants] found a sense of community, especially because of language and financial issues. Church was their means of having a sense of identity and presence at the city and state level, and formed a strong religious and social nexus."
However, the shift towards the Democratic Party includes both liberal and conservative Koreans, suggesting that the Republican Party's values are not in alignment with religiously conservative Korean Americans' values.
"When you think of a religious conservative in the mainstream sense, it doesn't always translate to the Korean American version. They align on some social issues – such as homosexuality – but beyond that, on issues of immigration, national security, and health care, a lot of Korean American religious conservatives are not in sync with those conservative values," Yi said.
"This isn't to say that [religious conservative Koreans] are liberal, but the bigger point is that it is not the same group."
A portion of this shifting electorate in Irvine – and the rest of the 45th District – will determine whether Min moves on to the general election during the June 5 primary.
"Candidates like Dave Min are sort of the future," Yi said.
"People like Min, you're going to see more and more candidates like that in the next 20 to 30 years. . . His campaign will be a model – good or bad – of how campaigns should be run for Korean Americans."