Elizabeth Heng, 33 and Cambodian-American, is not your father’s Republican.
When 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came from nowhere to defeat Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District, she became a media darling overnight. Time magazine called her win “the biggest upset of the 2018 elections so far.” Within days Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was appearing on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert ” and “The View.”
Now Republicans looking for their own Ocasio-Cortez think they may have found her. Meet Elizabeth Heng —a Republican running in California’s 16th Congressional District. Like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Ms. Heng is young (33). Like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, she’s a racial minority (Cambodian). And like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, she’s a millennial female running against an established male politician.
What makes her race interesting is California’s “jungle” primary system, in which candidates of all parties run against one another. The top two finishers then face off in November’s general election. California’s 16th is a reliably blue district in a state practically synonymous with the term “blue.” But a funny thing happened on the way to this year’s primary: The virtually unknown Republican woman came within 6% of beating incumbent Democrat Jim Costa in a head-to-head matchup.
In the June primary Ms. Heng received 35,080 votes to Mr. Costa’s 39,527. To put this in perspective, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez received 16,898 votes to Mr. Crowley’s 12,880. And again, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had an easier task, trying to prove she’s the best Democrat in a Democratic district. By contrast, Ms. Heng must persuade Democratic voters to give a Republican a chance.
Ms. Heng isn’t your father’s GOP nominee. In 1983 her parents arrived in the U.S. as penniless refugees from communist Cambodia. She grew up working after school at the little grocery store in Fresno that her family still runs.
A product of Fresno’s public schools, Ms. Heng was valedictorian at Sunnyside High School. She then got her bachelor’s degree from Stanford, where she became student body president. She helped start a string of T-Mobile stores with her brother, earned a master’s in business administration from Yale, and worked for Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She also served on the Trump inaugural committee.
It seems her time spent running a business with her brothers was what drove her into politics. She found the combination of state and federal regulation overbearing. “Instead of focusing on jobs, we were focusing on government regulations,” she told the Fresno Bee. Today she is running as a strong fiscal and deregulatory conservative.
Not everyone is enthralled with Ms. Heng’s background. Twitter and Facebook blocked a campaign video because it contained supposedly offensive images related to the hell her parents had gone through during the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Ultimately she forced them to back down, even though neither company gave a good reason why they had banned the video in the first place.
Defeating Mr. Costa will be difficult. As a Blue Dog Democrat, he was one of 28 House Democrats to vote to authorize the Keystone Pipeline. He has name recognition from his years in state and national politics. Oh, yes, he also had raised $1,152,825 as of June 30—more than three times what Ms. Heng has raised.
He also is likely to make an issue of her support for Donald Trump. In this sense, she is the Republican mirror-opposite of Democrats running for office in states Mr. Trump won in 2016. Hillary Clinton carried California’s 16th by 22 points.
But Ms. Heng is nothing if not enthusiastic, and she is making a conservative case against Mr. Costa. She opposes the high-speed railway boondoggle pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Mr. Costa. She supports immigration reform. In a district where water is a big issue—and where the Interior Department is now trying to get water to San Joaquin Valley farmers over the objection of state authorities—Ms. Heng might find herself in the stronger position.
Ditto for opportunity. Ms. Heng cites an Almanac of American Politics finding that California’s 16th Congressional District ranks 412th out of 435 in income, making it one of the poorest in the nation. She puts it this way: “America’s booming economy never made it to our district.”
Far from the slash-and-burn attacks of so many candidates, Ms. Heng’s pitch to voters is measured and low-key. But it’s no less devastating. A campaign video has Ms. Heng walking past abandoned houses, homeless people and empty storefronts. She says that for 14 years the district has been represented by “a nice man, Jim Costa”—who has done almost nothing to bring a better life to his constituents.
Ms. Heng remains a long shot. But if there is to be an Ocasio-Cortez surprise in November, California’s 16th is the place.