Asian American voters could help decide the Senate runoff in Georgia, experts say

Days before Georgia’s Senate runoff election on Tuesday, Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate, and Herschel Walker, his Republican opponent, are trying to sway an often-overlooked demographic that experts believe could decide the election.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who make up 4.7% of the state’s electorate, might provide the margin of victory in an election that's expected to be a close call, and the country is taking notice.

The last few weeks have seen the formation of Georgia’s first AAPI Caucus, the appearance of campaign ads in Asian languages, and the descent of national celebrities and organizations on Georgia to help get out the Asian vote.

Asian voter turnout nearly doubled in Georgia between 2016 and 2020, AAPI Data reported last year, and those ballots amounted to more than the margin with which President Joe Biden won the state. Leading up to the Dec. 6 runoff, both parties are coveting their vote.

“Georgia is an extremely competitive state, and we have over 100,000 South Asians and 250,000 Asian Americans,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of the civic organization Indian American Impact. “We have been the margin in the past and we can easily be the margin again.”

On the ground, organizations like Makhija’s have gone door to door, encouraging the state’s large AAPI population to come to the polls.

“We’re engaging in an all-hands-on-deck effort to reach out to our community via WhatsApp and platforms that political campaigns have traditionally just ignored or not even recognized as useful,” Makhija said. “We’re also meeting people at their doors.”

When it came to appealing to South Asian voters in Georgia, Nabilah Islam, 33, said her “secret weapon” had been under her nose for years. During her recent campaign for state Senate, the Bangladeshi American brought conversations about issues to aunties and uncles on their home turf: WhatsApp.

It paid off. She's now the first South Asian ever elected to the Georgia state Senate.

Islam’s home state is looking ahead to the highly anticipated U.S. Senate runoff between Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, and Walker, a Republican.

“I think folks have come to recognize how powerful our voting bloc is,” Islam said. “We are part of the reason that candidates cross the finish line.”

Warnock and Walker make final push for AAPI support

This week, Warnock’s campaign released a series of digital campaign ads in Vietnamese, Mandarin and Korean in an effort to mobilize Asian voters.

The importance of language access can’t be understated when trying to reach minority communities, advocates said, and it’s something campaigns have historically left until the last minute — or failed to do at all.

“Very rarely are AAPIs written into the campaign plan from the beginning of the campaign,” said Varun Nikore, executive director of the nonprofit AAPI Victory Alliance. “They realize that they have to do AAPI outreach, but it’s generally not proactive — it’s reactive. It’s not a priority.”

Islam said she found success making these inroads early.

“It takes time to grow trust with minority constituency groups, including the AAPI community,” she said. “Voters come out and vote for you because they feel like they know you, because you put in the effort to show up to their brunch meet and greet or their church or the festival they put together.”

Atlanta will play host to a group of Asian lawmakers and celebrities this weekend as Warnock and his allies make one last push to rally support from the crucial demographic. Put on by the AAPI Victory Fund, the rally will feature a performance by K-pop star Eric Nam and appearances from actor Daniel Dae Kim, author Min Jin Lee and TV host Jeannie Mai Jenkins.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal will pay the state a visit this weekend, as well, kicking off a pro-Warnock canvassing event following her phone-banking efforts for the campaign.

While Walker’s campaign hasn’t seen the same support from AAPI celebrities, the former running back hosted a campaign event in September for Indian American voters. He was joined by former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent.

“We could win this, and all eyes are on Georgia,” Haley said at the event.

A bloc starting to gain more recognition

According to Karthick Ramakrishnan, co-director of AAPI Data, the concerted efforts to appeal to Asian voters in Georgia are reflected in nationwide politics. While AAPIs mostly vote Democratic, there’s a stronger push being made from both sides to secure their attention.

“There is increasing competition. The Democrats have stepped up their game, partly because Republicans are also increasing their efforts,” he said. “On top of that, outside of the parties, you’re also seeing an increase in messaging and influence campaigns on social media. Some of it is outright misinformation and disinformation, through channels like WeChat and WhatsApp.”

In Georgia, members of the state’s House and Senate formed a first-ever bipartisan AAPI Caucus this week. Steps like these prove grassroots efforts to appeal to AAPI voters work, Makhija said.

“There’s no substitute for actually electing people from the community,” he said. “They will have a seat at the table and bring our communities’ voices and concerns to the floor in a way we just haven’t had to this point. What’s incredible is that that’s happening across the whole country.”

Gun violence was a top noneconomic issue on AAPI voters’ minds this year, and in the state where the Atlanta-area spa shootings claimed six Asian lives last year, Ramakrishnan and Nikore say it could affect how people vote in the runoffs and beyond.

“Amongst the community, this issue probably resonates much more than in other states,” Nikore said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com