Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers

Suraj Patel ran as a Democratic challenger in New York’s 12th congressional district and funded his run primarily with donations from other South Asian Americans.

William Mebane / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Suraj Patel’s 2020 campaign website ran three ads: one in English, one in Spanish and one in Gujarati. Just one Small amount of people in the New York borough where Patel ran speak Gujarati, but Patel told me it was important that he have a video in his native language so that he could speak directly to his parents and the other Gujarati-speaking Americans who it supported his campaign.

In fact, it was largely thanks to the Gujarati Americans and other South Asian American donors that Patel got his campaign off the ground in the first place. Nearly 84 percent of the $ 1 million he raised from individual donors came from South Asian Americans.

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“They don’t have the same support systems that have been built for other groups over generations,” Patel said of campaigning as an Indian-American. “It’s exactly how our families built their businesses: loans from friends and networks and informal networks for mentoring and supporting niche communities.”

Ultimately, Patel shared the same fate as many progressive challengers, losing the Democratic primary in New York’s 12th Congressional District to longtime incumbent MP Carolyn Maloney (albeit tight). But Patel’s experience – particularly the extent to which he relied on donations from other South Asian Americans to launch his campaign – shows a path for South Asian Americans to run for political office.

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It’s also a complicated story, however: while raising funds from the South Asian American community can help kick-start campaigns like Patels, community support doesn’t always guarantee success and can present a unique set of challenges to newbies.

South Asian Americans are a growing political force

Number of South Asian candidates running for the House or Senate, along with the amount of money other South Asian Americans donated in 2000-20

democrat republican Other
year Cands. donate Cands. donate Cands. donate
2000 1 $ 2,551 1 $ 7,630 – – – –
2002 3 164.284 2 8.675 – – – –
2004 1 262,532 4th 1,710,938 1 $ 500
2006 5 874.560 3 1,761,702 1 4,000
2008 4th 1,591,276 3 71.444 2 8,900
2010 7th 6,696,640 5 694,934 – – – –
2012 13 7,449,347 2 570.514 – – – –
2014 11 8,408,558 3 684,413 1 12,450
2016 12 12,695,987 7th 2,142,520 1 4,500
2018 32 20,219,471 8th 1,190,866 1 107.623
2020 21st 23,396,123 14th 4,293,285 2 23,633

We used NamePrism, an algorithm that guesses a person’s ethnicity based on their name, to identify South Asian American donors and candidates. Donations from people who donated less than $ 200 are excluded as these donations do not need to be reported individually in the FEC data.

Source: Bundestag Election Commission

In recent years, South Asian Americans have become an increasingly active force in politics, from just two candidates in 2000 to about 40 in the last two election cycles according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. Most of the political activity in South Asia and America still falls within the Democratic Party, which is evident in both the number of candidates and where donors give their money. Survey also find that the Majority of South Asian Americans identify as democrats.

Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 1

Although most South Asian Americans vote democratically, the candidates determine the ideological range – from progressives like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (left) to pro-Trump candidates like Republican Senate candidate Manny Sethi (right).

Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Star Tribune via Getty Images / Brianna Paciorka / Knoxville News Sentinel via AP

Despite the tendency towards democracy, South Asian Americans – like any group – are ideologically diverse. South Asian American candidates in the past election cycle ranged from New York progressives like Patel to Republicans from Tennessee Dr. Manny Sethi, who ran for the US Senate in his state’s primary election on an explicitly pro-Trump agenda. But while Republicans have made some strides in recent years – particularly in promoting Indian Americans – few Republican congressional candidates have qualified for the general election and faced great opportunities.

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Among them was Rik Mehta, a New Jersey Senate candidate who had little chance of beating New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Like Patel, Mehta raised a significant amount from South Asian Americans (about half of his donations came from South Asian Americans). However, Mehta’s opponent Booker – in fact, he raised more dollars from South Asian Americans than Mehta – emphasized how difficult it can be for newcomers to raise money from an ideologically diverse community, even if they share an ethnic identity.

Donations to ethnic candidates

Patel raised money mostly from Indian Americans, but he really did tap into a particular community: other Patels. Seventy percent of donations from individual donors came from people with the surname Patel – a common surname among a subset of the relatively wealthy Gujarati community.

Patel told me that fundraising from within his own community is the obvious starting point. “[It] I think every ethnic group has done this in the past, ”Patel said, citing how Irish Catholics tapped the community’s money pools when they started running for office around the turn of the 20th century.

Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 2

Suraj Patel campaign staff were busy submitting their unofficial vote count from a postal ballot review on a NYC Board of Elections website last July in Manhattan. Patel raised a lot of money from South Asian Americans in his run, but ultimately didn’t win his race.

William Mebane / The Washington Post via Getty Images

According to our analysis of Publicly available campaign funding records Patel was one of about a dozen South Asian Americans whose 2020 campaigns were funded primarily by other South Asian Americans. In fact, we found a fairly strong ethnic donation effect – that is, many South Asian Americans gave disproportionately to candidates who were also South Asian. (We used NamePrism, a algorithm That tries to guess a person’s ethnicity based on their name to see who South Asian Americans are supporting.) Overall, over a quarter of the money we traced to South Asian name donors was given to candidates who were South Asian.

Fundraising campaigns for South Asian Americans

The amount of money candidates of South Asian descent running for the House or Senate in 2020 was she received from other South Asian Americans

Senate race
Amount donated (in thousands)
candidate pty Status total Coethnic Coethnic%
Sara Gideon D. ME $ 42,952 $ 713 2%
Dr. Manny Sethi R. TN 2.522 126 5
Rik Mehta R. NJ 194 98 51
Usha Reddi D. KS 92 48 53
Hirsh Singh R. NJ 225 33 15th
Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai R. MA 149 5 3
House races
Amount donated (in thousands)
candidate Pty Seat total Coethnic Coethnic%
Raja Krishnamoorthi D. IL-8 4,782 USD $ 2,601 54%
Sri Preston Kulkarni D. TX-22 4.096 1.241 30th
Ro Khanna D. CA-17 3.423 1,076 31
Suraj Patel D. NY-12 1,016 849 84
Rishi Kumar D. CA-18 502 447 89
Dr. Pritesh Gandhi D. TX-10 1,064 444 42
Qasim Rashid D. VA-1 791 330 42
Dr. Hiral Tipirneni D. AZ-6 4.017 258 6th
Pramila Jayapal D. WA-7 1,601 177 11
Krishna Bansal R. IL-11 158 144 91
Nisha Sharma R. CA-11 147 139 94
Ritesh Tandon R. CA-17 129 120 93
Kiran Sreepada D. TN-7 159 106 67
Bangar Reddy Aaloori R. TX-22 96 95 100
Solomon Rajput D. WED-12 112 86 76
Dr. Ami Bera D. CA-7 810 81 10
Nabilah Islam D. GA-7 446 75 17th
Manga Anantatmula R. VA-11 117 36 31
Arati Kreibich D. NJ-5 273 32 12
Badrun Khan D. NY-14 47 22nd 47
Dr. Inam Hussain D. IL-8 30th 21st 70
Shahid Buttar D. CA-12 599 16 3
Aditya Pai D. CA-45 22nd 14th 64
Anita Malik D. AZ-6 157 11 7th
Dr. Bimal Patel D. TX-18 29 8th 28
Debesh Sarkar R. NC-4 5 5 95
Shaniyat Chowdhury D. NY-5 39 1 3
Dr. Bisham Singh R. WED-10 5 1 21st
Sunny chaparala R. TX-24 4th 0 7th

We used NamePrism, an algorithm that guesses a person’s ethnicity based on their name, to identify South Asian American donors and candidates, and compared that list to the Juggernaut’s 2020 list of South Asian Americans running for Congress. Donations from people who have donated less than $ 200 are excluded as these donations do not need to be reported individually in the FEC data.

Source: Bundestag Election Commission

The fact that many South Asian American donors are funding campaigns by other South Asian Americans is not a new phenomenon – or limited to South Asian Americans. According to Jake Grumbach, professor of political science at the University of Washington, who researched how non-white donors give political contributions, when candidates with a color are on the ballot, those of the same race or ethnicity are more motivated to give. His Study on political donations In the 1980 to 2012 general election, the effect was found to be particularly strong among Asian Americans.

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Grumbach’s study did not separate Asian Americans according to national origin, but a 2002 paper by Wendy K. Tam Cho, Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois. She found that the strongest indicator of whether Asian Americans would donate to a political campaign was whether a candidate was also Asian American. There was a catch, however. Cho found that this effect was limited to Asian Americans of the same background. That is, Chinese Americans likely donated to other Chinese Americans and Indian Americans to other Indian Americans.

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But a candidate’s ethnicity was so central to whether he would receive donations from Asian Americans. Cho found it outweighed even a candidate’s viability – perhaps to explain why a longshot like Mehta who ran against an incumbent like Booker was still getting so much money from other South Asian Americans.

There is no answer to why someone gives something to a Longshot campaign, but one possible explanation Cho provides is that it can be symbolically important.

Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 3

There are currently four South Asian Americans in Congress: MPs Ro Khanna (top left), Pramila Jayapal (top right), Raja Krishnamoorthi (bottom left), and Ami Bera (bottom right).


The Samosa Committee

South Asians don’t just support Longshot candidates, however. There were also many successes. Take the four seated members of South Asian-American descent – Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi – all Democrats who won reelection this year and have come to be called “The Samosa Caucus.”

They have each received at least some funding from South Asian Americans, but the extent to which they have relied on (and continue to rely on) money from fellow South Asian Americans varies.

Jayapal, for example, received about $ 250,000 from South Asian American donors on her first congressional run in Seattle in 2016, but that was only a small fraction of the $ 3 million she raised from her broader progressive coalition that year. Meanwhile, Bera and Khanna, who represent California districts near Sacramento and San Jose, respectively, received more than half of their large donations from South Asian American donors in their first few runs for Congress. However, with her tenure in Congress extended, her funding sources are less dependent on South Asian American donations – especially those from Bera. Unlike the others, Krishnamoorthi, who represents a district in the Chicago suburbs, has increased his reliance on South Asian American donations since he first ran for Congress in 2012 and continues to receive much of his funding from South Asian Americans.

Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 4
Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 5

Krishnamoorthi’s continued reliance on South Asian Americans for the bulk of his donations may have something to do with his policies, which differ from other samosa caucus members – at least when it comes to issues affecting the subcontinent. These differences reveal some of the ideological and political divisions within the broader South Asian American community – even among those who only participate in Democratic Party politics – and are one reason why fundraising mainly from other South Asian Americans can be challenging .

Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 6

MPs Ro Khanna (left) and Ami Bera (right) both relied heavily on other South Asian Americans to launch their political careers.

Aric Crabb / Bay Area News Group via Getty Images / Manny Crisostomo / Sacramento Bee / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Krishnamoorthi, for example, has angered many progressive and Muslim South Asian Americans to the speak at events that are known for give a platform to Hindu nationalist groups. He was also criticized for being that sole Indian-American member of Congress at the 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” Event in Houston where President Trump shared the stage with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the two heads of state and government welcomed India-America relations. For his part, Krishnamoorthi has acknowledged the criticism he is facing, but has also referred to the situation as Catch-22. Tell Politico in October that he is also under pressure from Hindu Republicans who argue “he is not sufficiently sympathetic to the Indian government or the Hindu nationalists”.

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Meanwhile, the other three seated Indo-American Members of the House, who do not depend on that much money from South Asian Americans, have been far more explicit in their criticisms of Modi – about whom about half of Indian Americans agree – and Hindu nationalism. Khanna has tweeted that all Hindu American politicians should refuse Hindutva (the idea that India is an inherently Hindu nation). Bera has spoken out on the importance of secularism in India while Jayapal sponsored a bill In 2019, this called on the Indian government to stop restricting human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, prompting the Indian Foreign Minister to do so cancel a meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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If Khanna, Bera and Jayapal don’t rely on Indian American funding, it has likely become easier to openly criticize the Indian government without alienating their donor or voter base. But budding South Asian American politicians, many of whom rely primarily on other South Asian Americans to get started, may be forced to face some of these issues head-on. In doing so, they risk alienating donors or activists – or in some cases both.

Challenges in building a South Asian American coalition

Sri Preston Kulkarni has now run twice for Congress, both times in the 22nd Congressional District of Texas, a historically republican district in the Houston suburbs that has changed rapidly over the past two decades. Ultimately, Kulkarni did not turn the 22nd district around in 2018 or in 2020but it remains fertile ground for someone like Kulkarni to run. Home of the city Sugar Land, Texas, The 22nd district, whose population is almost 40 percent Asian-Americans and whose median household income is in the six-figure range, is one of the heavily suburban districts that have become more democratic in recent years, even if they are not yet blue.

In both elections, Kulkarni’s strategy centered on activating Asian American voters, whom he told me others had written off. “If you try to pull up lists of people who donate to other Democrats, you won’t see many Asian names there as a percentage,” Kulkarni said, repeating many of the challenges Patel told me about in his first offer for office.

Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 7

House candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni made nationwide headlines on his 2020 campaign techniques, which included hosting multilingual telephone bank athons aimed at generating South Asian American voters.

David J. Phillip / AP Photo

Many South Asian politicians have gotten started with this fundraising strategy, and some – like Krishnamoorthi – continue to have success with it. But Krishnamoorthi’s district is far more democratic than Kulkarni’s, which gives him more leeway to take controversial positions. Krishnamoorthi also enjoys the benefits of a two-year incumbent with an established support base, while the newcomer Kulkarni had to form a coalition to win his race. This turned out to be challenging.

“They definitely don’t have a built-in network of democratic donors,” he said. Because of this, he said he initially relied on community leaders within certain affinity groups such as Hindu groups, Telugu groups, or groups of Asian hotel owners. “The community is so closely connected that it is a natural bundling scenario,” he said.

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As you can see in the table below, Kulkarni has successfully reached out to the South Asian American community and raised more than half of his money from other South Asian Americans on his first run in 2018, as is typical of many first-time candidates. He started his 2020 run with the support of many South Asian American donors, though with his higher profile and with more support from the Democratic Party, he was able to diversify his base of financial support. However, by the end of its run in 2020, about a third of its funding came from individual contributors from South Asian Americans.

Many South Asian Americans Tap Into Their Community To Kick-Start Their Political Careers 8

Kulkarni’s coalition building, however, went beyond fundraising. He also had Volunteers and campaign workers use their existing relationships Calling people they knew or with whom they shared language or cultural ties. Kulkarni captured national headlines for the telephone banks he stopped at Dozens of languages ​​and for Speak to voters in temples and mosques. His micro-targeting efforts were so specific that in our interview he was able to quote the specific voter turnout numbers among those who spoke mainly Telugu or among Ismaili Muslims, members of a subsection of Islam who have one growing presence in Houston.

While Kulkarni received support from across the South Asian diaspora in 2018, his efforts to build a multicultural South Asian coalition ran into roadblocks in 2020. In September, Emgage Action, a Muslim-American PAC, did so Kulkarni advocated in 2018, published a statement tWhat would they not support him again citing its links with nationalist donors from the Hindus and his unwillingness to publicly condemn Modi’s administrative policies.

Kulkarni told me that “the bottom line” on the matter was that he was running “the most comprehensive campaign ever,” adding that he had more Hindu and Muslim volunteers than any campaign in Texas history. And in one ExplanationKulkarni tried to allay Muslim Americans’ concerns by promising to oppose the use of two controversial modes management policies Stripping Muslims of their citizenship in India. But for some Muslim Americans and progressives, that wasn’t enough.

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The challenges Kulkarni encountered in building a “grand tented coalition” in the 22nd district of Texas show how difficult it can be to build a coalition even among South Asian Americans. And for some South Asian Americans, political support isn’t just about donating candidates who look like them. The Texas Chapter of You see blue, an organization that mobilizes South Asian Americans to vote for Democrats, didn’t even organize for Kulkarni. For example, in 2020 they focused on flipping the Texas State House by targeting candidates in districts with a high concentration of South Asians. Muneezeh Kabir, a young Bangladeshi American who attended high school in the Kulkarni district, explained the organization’s reasoning. “It just so happens that the people who take part in these races are mostly not desi, but it sends a strong message to the people,” she said, “feel free to be proud and people who look to provide financial support. ” like you, but also [give to] People who don’t look like you and still support the things that are important to you. “

South Asian Americans clearly have enough money and focused political will at this point to put candidates on the map. But who they support – whether candidates who look like them or those who also support their cause – can ultimately influence that community’s influence on US politics, which is capitalized.

This story was published in collaboration with The Moloch. Snigdha Sur contributed to the editorial guidance.

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