The head of the New Trier Republican Organization has been busy setting up campaign committees for the last two weeks — filing paperwork for 10 new committees, nine of which explicitly are geared toward Asian Americans electing Republicans.

State Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) marches in the Lunar New Year Parade in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood in February. [Photo courtesy of Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago)]

NTRO committeeman Danielle Mergner is the treasurer of all of the committees, which were created and approved by the State Board of Elections between June 26 and July 5. The new committees are:

Prior to the filing for these 10 new committees, The Daily Line was only able to find two with similar goals that had previously existed: Illinois Korean American Republicans, formed last June, and Lake Cook Asian Republicans, which was formed in March. Those committees do not appear to share direct ties to the new committees.

None of the new committees were formed with funds from established committees, according to paperwork filed with the state.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Mergner asked that The Daily Line email her, but Mergner did not reply. When The Daily Line attempted to call Mergner again, her line had been disconnected.

The newly formed committees represent a previously under-appreciated voting group: the ever-growing Asian American population in Chicago’s suburbs.

While Asian Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in recent years, surveys from AAPI Data, a demographics research program focused on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, show that Asian Americans are the ethnic group least likely to be contacted by campaigns and other organizations involved with elections.

But these ethnic groups represent significant and growing portions of Illinois’ population, including 254,319 residents of Indian descent, 146,959 Filipinos, 146,150 Chinese, 67,758 Korean, 41,295 Pakistani and 36,957 Japanese, according to AAPI Data. From 2010 to 2016, the number of eligible AAPI voters in Illinois grew 22 percent, in comparison with a 2-percent growth rate for the statewide eligible voting population in the same time period.

As Asian Americans continue to expand their footprint as the most rapidly growing ethnic group in the United States, the GOP is bound to try to make inroads with this untapped voting group.

State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago), who is the first Asian American elected to the General Assembly, told The Daily Line on Friday that the Asian American community, especially those in Korean American enclaves in the Northern Suburbs, are likely to be targeted by the GOP.

In fact, three Korean American Republican candidates are running in traditionally Democratic districts on the North Shore:

  • Julie Cho has challenged Democratic State Rep. Robyn Gabel, of Evanston
  • Soojae Lee is running again against Democratic Sen. Terry Link, of Waukegan.
  • Peter Lee is challenging Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz in the race for Illinois’ 17th House District, as Rep. Laura Fine (D-Glenview) is vying to replace Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) in the Senate.

“My sense of it was that the Republicans are throwing support behind Korean American candidates to try to gain more support among Republicans or Republican-leaning folks in the Korean American community,” Mah said. “These are not viable candidates but it’s kind of a symbolic gesture that we’re supporting your community…it’s an empty gesture but to some folks in the Korean American community, the GOP seems like it’s paying attention to them.”

Many Korean Americans are aligned with conservative Christian Churches, but that’s far from the whole Asian American voter story. Many Filipino voters are likely to be Catholic, as a result of the Spanish occupation of that country. But some Asian American voters are not religious, and may instead be swayed by candidates’ positions on fiscal or immigration policy.

Compared with other minority groups in the United States, Asian Americans are more likely to own businesses or have professional licenses, especially as new immigrants, according to Census data.

Steve Moon, the director of organizing at the nonpartisan Chicago-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told The Daily Line that both political parties are beginning to realize that the Asian American population in Chicago and the suburbs has expanded to the point where those voters “can cover the margin” in an election.

“It could be a reflection of folks recognizing that there is this Asian American population that can be the difference and maybe in some of these areas where — I won’t necessarily say it’s overwhelmingly conservative — but can be playing off of some of the more conservative elements of the Asian American community,” Moon said.

Fiscal conservatism and family values are two areas where Chinese Americans, for example, line up with the GOP in some respects, Moon said. However, many Asian Americans also line up to support progressive candidates and progressive values, Moon said.

Moon urged both parties to resist the urge to think of Asian Americans as a monolith.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes and institutionalized racism,” Moon said. “Even just thinking of Asians as one homogenized group…there’s the Laotian community in Elgin versus the Chinese Community here in Chicago and Chinatown. Their histories are different and their needs are different.”

Political maps have also not favored Asian American candidates or voters. Mah, elected in 2016, is the first Chinese American candidate to represent the Chinatown neighborhood of Chicago, which had been represented by State Rep. Eddie Acevedo for a decade.

Asian American candidates have traditionally not been encouraged to run, and Asian American voters have long been ignored, Moon said

“We’ve had to organize ourselves in order to make sure we have the voice and we have the power in order to get the attention and support of elections,” Moon said.

Voter outreach has also been a struggle in the Asian American community, due in part to language barriers or cultural norms, Moon said. But Moon’s group, AAAJ, does nonpartisan voter outreach and also advocated for the passage of Automatic Voter Registration in Illinois last year.

Mah was unfazed by news of Mergner’s 10 new Republican-focused committees targeted to Asian Americans, but warned that Democrats don’t necessarily have a lock on Asian American voters.

“The folks who live out in Naperville or Oak Brook — a lot of them are engineers and they were able to immigrate through those professional or educational visas and they’re very vulnerable to recruitment by Republicans because the folks surrounding them are conservative, Republican and part of the establishment,” Mah said. “A lot of these folks think they can get ahead by favoring the folks who are in power.”

Mah also pointed out that new immigrants, especially professional Asian Americans are “very detached from the history of racial politics in the U.S,” and may not vote with other minority groups, which have traditionally favored Democrats.

Sources within the Illinois Republican Party were not sure why the committees were set up and could not confirm if they were formed at the direction of anyone within the state GOP.

While Mergner filed the paperwork and serves as the treasurer for all 10 committees, Asian Americans are listed as the chairpersons for the committees. The Daily Line was not able to reach any of the chairpersons.