A Texas Democrat’s strategy to turn out voters includes speaking to them in Nigerian Igbo

How do you say “go vote”?
How do you say “go vote”?
Image: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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If the past is any indication, Sri Preston Kulkarni is wasting his time.

The 40-year-old Democrat is running for Congress in Texas’s 22nd district, in suburban Houston—a reliably Republican district for decades. But Kulkarni is betting on its growing diversity to give him a fighting chance on Nov. 6.

Kulkarni, a former diplomat, is part of a group of emerging Democratic candidates who are defying electoral odds by reaching out to people who haven’t voted in the past. A key part of their strategy is using their multicultural background to reach elusive minority voters.

In another long shot race in the Lone Star state, 48th in voter turnout among the 50 states and D.C., Beto O’Rourke is challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz for a US Senate seat. He’s white, but having grown in El Paso, he is fluent in both Spanish and Mexican culture. In deeply red Georgia, which ranks 3oth in turnout, former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams is running for governor. She’s the first African-American woman to run for governor in any state.

Overall, the 2018 midterm elections will be the most diverse so far, in terms of candidates, data show—and a big test on whether minority candidates attract minority votes.

The changing face of the 22nd district

The 22nd district was configured by Republicans to remain safely in their hands. It was the 22nd’s longtime US representative, former House Majority leader Tom DeLay, who led Texas Republicans in an elaborate redistricting effort to turn the state red back in 2003. In 2006, Stephen Colbert (then of the The Colbert Report) joked about DeLay’s “exquisitely gerrymandered district.” These days, its boundaries are squigglier than 78% of the country’s congressional districts, a telltale sign of political rejiggering.

But the 22nd has changed in ways that Republicans likely didn’t anticipate. Its population has exploded, and it is among the most diverse congressional districts in the country. It has the largest number of Asian-American voters, according to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Data, an effort that tracks that community out of the University of California, Riverside.

Over time, the district has also become somewhat less Republican, though Democrats still have a wide gap to close.

 Sri Preston Kulkarni: A local politician

When Kulkarni looks at the 22nd’s diversity and low turnout rate, he sees an opportunity to unseat Republican incumbent Pete Olson, who’s represented the district since 2008.

Kulkarni is both the son of an Indian immigrant, and related to Texas founding father Sam Houston, by way of his mother’s family. He grew up in the area, but spent most of his career as a US State Department official abroad and in Washington, D.C.

He decided to return to Texas after resigning from his job as a foreign officer at the US embassy in India, less than a year into the Trump presidency. He was disappointed by what he called the opt-out of real diplomatic efforts by the administration, its “anti-immigrant, dangerously nationalist sentiment,” and the president’s support of Alabama’s Roy Moore, who has been accused to sexually assaulting girls. “I couldn’t in good conscience continue to represent this government abroad,” he told Quartz. “I believed in the concept of America, in the ideals of equality, of welcoming people from every corner of the earth.”

Kulkarni is now running his campaign on the same values, he adds. He rejects demonizing opponents in favor of compromising and finding bipartisan solutions. After the 2016 presidential election, he founded a group called Breaking Bread with a Republican colleague to get people with different political values to discuss the issues that concern them. That conciliatory message could be a draw for non voters who are turned off by political polarization.

Pulling the diversity lever

Minorities don’t have a stellar record of showing up to the polls, but Kulkarni hopes to turn them into an asset. He has been especially active in outreach towards Asian-Americans, who usually turn out at a rate of about 50% and who have often been overlooked in campaign outreach.

In Fort Bend, the country that makes up most of the 22nd district, voter turnout was only about 36% in the last midterm elections [in line with the national average, which is significantly lower than the presidential election turnout]. But Kulkarni believes that Asian-American voters could turn into huge multipliers of support because of their tight social networks. Knocking on a single door is equivalent to talking to that homeowner’s whole extended family, which can be dozens of people, he says. “That’s the immigrant strength!” he says.

He believes this approach will gradually turn the idea that immigrants are a low-power, low-turnout group on its head. “Immigrants had less power before because they didn’t respond to calls from strangers,” he says. But if they’re called by someone who knows them, they can save a politician lots of time and money by recruiting others.

These voters, Kulkarni found, are also more likely to contribute money to a campaign if they know the person who’s asking for it. “For most of these people, they are not used to political donations,” Kulkarni says. But by tapping into immigrant networks, he was able to raise enough funds to run for office, despite being a first-time candidate with little experience as a fundraiser. “Without the strength of the South Asian community supporting me financially, this campaign would have been impossible,” he says. Indeed, according to Open Secrets, big individual donations are the main source of Kulkarni’s campaign money, compared to his rival Olson, who derives most of his funding from political action committees (PACs).

Speak their language

How, exactly, is Kulkarni coaxing disengaged Asian voters out of their shells? He says he’s able to approach voters with more nuance—that is, without lumping in together all Indians, or all South Asians, as one community, or Filipinos with Vietnamese.

“Asians are not a monolith at all,” he says. “Asian-American is kind of a misnomer.”

He’s also trying to break a significant barrier for foreign-born voters: language. About 40% of the 22nd district’s residents speak a language other than English at home.

Kulkarni himself speaks five languages, aside from English: Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish. He’s also assembled a polyglot team of staffers and volunteers. They make calls in more than a dozen languages, including Vietnamese, other Indian languages such as Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, and Nigerian Igbo.

His staff says the strategy is working. Pollsters now rate the district as “lean Republican” instead of “likely Republican,” as they did at the beginning of his campaign. And on Monday, the first day of early voting in Texas, turnout was 280% higher than in 2014, the year of the last midterms.

Of course, he won’t know until after the election whether it was his supporters—or motivated Republicans—behind that spike.

Correction: Kulkarni is related to Sam Houston, but is not a direct descendant.