Garden Grove City Councilwoman Kim Bernice Nguyen on Wednesday became the first notable Democrat to announce a campaign against Republican Rep. Michelle Steel in California’s 45th Congressional District, a western Orange County constituency that Joe Biden carried 52-46 in 2020.
Nguyen, who used her opening video to tell the audience, “My father is a Vietnamese refugee, my mother a Mexican immigrant,” made history in 2016 when she became the first person of Latino origin to ever serve on her City Council. Nguyen four years later challenged Republican County Supervisor Andrew Do only to take fourth place in the nonpartisan primary, but she ran for another seat in 2022 when redistricting created the first majority-Latino board seat in Orange County history.
Nguyen’s opponent this time was a fellow Democrat, Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, and both contenders had some prominent supporters in their corner. Nguyen’s backers included Rep. Katie Porter, a prominent progressive who was successfully running for the 47th District; the sheriff deputies union; and even her old opponent Do. Sarmiento, meanwhile, sported endorsements from Gov. Gavin Newsom and the county Democratic Party, and he ended up beating Nguyen 52-48 in an election that saw their party take its first majority on the Board of Supervisors since 1976.
Steel herself has pulled off two close congressional wins in Orange County, an area where plenty of voters still back Republicans down the ballot even as they’ve become more open to supporting Democrats overall. Steel won a promotion from the Board to the House in 2020 when she unseated Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda 51-49 even as Biden was taking the old 48th District 50-48. (Rouda is now running to succeed Porter, who is campaigning for the Senate.)
Redistricting completely scrambled the map the following cycle and led Steel to campaign for the new 45th District, a constituency that was almost 85% new to her and a bit more blue than her existing seat. Steel responded to the challenge by embracing the old Orange County GOP strategy of accusing her Democratic opponent of being linked to communists, a tactic that local Republicans had long used in areas with large Vietnamese American electorates like western Orange County.
Steel generated national attention late in the campaign when she sent out a mailer declaring that her Democratic opponent, local school board trustee Jay Chen, had "invited China into our children's classes." Chen's campaign responded to the offensive by highlighting the fact that his grandmother fled China after the Communist Party took power and his own service in the U.S. Navy Reserves, though that very much didn’t deter Steel’s allies from airing TV ads accusing him of having "led efforts to bring Chinese communist propaganda to schools.”
The DCCC and House Majority PAC largely focused their resources elsewhere in a pessimistic sign for Chen’s prospects, while their Republican counterparts spent a hefty $5 million. Steel did win, though her 52-48 margin may have been smaller than national Democrats predicted before Election Day; according to Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux, the Republican candidates for governor and Senate each carried the 45th District 51-49 last year as well. Politico wrote in December that some Democrats hoped Chen would run again, though he doesn’t appear to have publicly said anything about his 2024 plans.