FRESNO — Some of the biggest political upsets of 2018 have come from younger, minority women with compelling personal stories and a winning argument that longtime incumbents are out of touch.
Another common ingredient: They’re liberal Democrats.
But Elizabeth Heng, a 33-year-old daughter of Cambodian refugees running against a congressman who’s been in elected office longer than she’s been alive, is about to find out if Republicans can follow that same playbook.
Heng, a San Jose native and former Stanford student body president, is challenging Democratic congressman Jim Costa in a Fresno-area district that’s among the nation’s poorest. In the primary, she climbed within six percentage points of Costa, winning a larger share of the vote than any other GOP challenger in the state.
Now, as California Republicans worry about the possibility of Democrats wiping out Republican incumbents in a half-dozen hard-fought races up and down the state, Heng offers a rare opportunity for the GOP to go on the offensive — and a test of whether recruiting more diverse candidates can help the embattled party survive in the Golden State, strategists say.
“We have career politicians who have been there for too long and they continue to mortgage our generation’s future,” said Heng, an enthusiastic campaigner who talks with her hands. “We need younger people in politics to shake up the system.”
In her race against Costa, a former state legislator, she’s shown political acumen for a first-time candidate. When Facebook and Twitter temporarily blocked her biographical campaign video, calling its historical photos of the Cambodian genocide “shocking, disrespectful or sensational content,” she spun the controversy into a powerful fundraising cause, railing against social media censorship and winning national headlines.
Now, her campaign is running ads on social media urging viewers to “watch the censored video,” which introduces her family story and shows the peril they escaped in coming to America.
“It probably ended up being better for her that they took it down than if they hadn’t,” said Lisa Bryant, a political science professor at California State University Fresno. “She used that very effectively to raise her name recognition and get people talking.”
Costa has had some close calls for re-election: In 2014, he held on by less than two points. Still, he’s the clear favorite. Bryant calls Heng a “long shot,” the Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Democratic,” and Costa had outraised Heng by almost four times as of the end of June. A poll conducted last month for local TV station KFSN found Costa 11 points ahead.
“I take a great deal of pride in all of these efforts,” he said. “Anyone here in the Valley knows that if you want to get something done, work with Jim Costa — on a bipartisan basis.”Costa, one of fewer than 20 remaining members of the centrist “Blue Dog” Democratic coalition, says “it takes a lot of chutzpah” for Heng to suggest he isn’t doing enough for the district. In an interview, he listed the funding he’s helped secure for the area over his 14 years in Congress: millions for dam and water infrastructure, the local VA hospital, increased service for Amtrak trains, and other priorities.
In one sign that he’s taking the race seriously, his campaign has aired radio and TV ads noting that Heng didn’t vote in numerous elections while living in California and elsewhere around the country. “Missing politician,” one ad declares, featuring Heng’s face on a milk carton.
Heng’s campaign has highlighted the inspiring story of how her parents met while fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Her father’s high school in Phnom Penh was converted into one of Cambodia’s most notorious torture and execution centers.
The couple was resettled in San Jose in 1983, and Heng was born there — she fondly remembers the Chuck E. Cheese’s off Tully Road. Her family moved to Fresno when she was in elementary school to open a small grocery store stocked with Southeast Asian staples that they still run more than two decades later. Almost one in four of the residents of her congressional district are immigrants.
While Heng grew up as a Democrat, she switched to the GOP after getting fed up with government regulations as she and her brothers started a chain of mobile phone stores. Once, she remembered, they fired an employee who came in to work drunk three times — only to have the state government tell them they had to pay him unemployment benefits.Heng attended Stanford University, where she was elected student body president in 2006. When a student publication asked her whether she would be “in the political arena in a few years,” Heng replied, “you bet.” She went off to work in Washington, D.C., for California Republican Rep. Ed Royce, before getting her MBA at Yale last year.
Now, back home in a district that Hillary Clinton won by more than 20 points in 2016, Heng is a supporter of President Trump. She backs controversial policies like Trump’s tax plan, citing provisions to bring investment into disadvantaged communities, and the president’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
She’s also reluctant to criticize his immigration policies. While she calls for immigration reform and wants to see more guest workers allowed into the U.S., she declined to say whether she opposes the Trump administration’s move to cap refugee admissions at just 30,000 people per year, a record low. She did say it was “heartbreaking” to see migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, without specifically criticizing Trump.
Still, Heng, who would be the first Cambodian-American member of Congress, is hoping that she can bring voters from immigrant communities like the one she grew up in into the Republican fold. One Wall Street Journal op-ed described her as “an Ocasio-Cortez for the GOP,” a reference to New York candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand democratic socialist who unseated one of the top Democrats in the House in a primary this year.
Heng says she’d enjoy debating Ocasio-Cortez on the House floor. While their politics are almost a mirror opposite, Heng also talks about the need for “generational diversity,” noting how some less-than-internet-savvy members of Congress struggled to question Mark Zuckerberg and other tech executives at hearings this year.
Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist in Sacramento, said Heng’s candidacy was a hopeful sign for the party whether she wins or loses.
“She speaks with a life experience that appeals beyond the traditional Republican base,” Madrid said. “If the Republican party in California has any chance of being relevant in the future, it’s going to be because of candidates like her.”