Suraj Patel’s 2020 campaign website featured three ads: one in English, one in Spanish and one in Gujarati. Only a tiny fraction of people in the New York City district where Patel was running speak Gujarati, but Patel told me that 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 supported his campaign.
In fact, it was primarily thanks to Gujarati Americans and other South Asian American donors that Patel was able to get his campaign off the ground in the first place. Nearly 84 percent of the $1 million he raised from individual contributors came from South Asian Americans.
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“You don’t have the same sort of support systems that have been built over the generations for other groups,” Patel said about campaigning as an Indian American. “It’s just like how our families built their businesses: borrowing from friends and networks and informal networks of mentorship and support from niche communities.”
Ultimately, Patel met the same fate that befalls many progressive challengers, losing the Democratic primary in New York’s 12th Congressional District to longtime incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney (albeit narrowly). But Patel’s experience — particularly the extent to which he relied on donations from other South Asian Americans to kick-start his campaign — illustrates one path for South Asian Americans to run for political office.
However, it’s also a complicated story: While fundraising from within the South Asian American community can help get campaigns like Patel’s off the ground, community support doesn’t always guarantee success and can pose a unique set of challenges for newcomers.
In recent years, South Asian Americans1 have become an increasingly active force in politics, going from only two candidates running in 2000 to about 40 in the past two election cycles, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. Most South Asian American political activity still falls within the Democratic Party, as evidenced by both the number of candidates running and where donors are giving their money. Polls also find that the majority of South Asian Americans identify as Democrats.2
Despite leaning Democratic, South Asian Americans — like any group — are ideologically diverse. South Asian American candidates this past election cycle ranged from New York progressives like Patel to Tennessee Republicans like Dr. Manny Sethi, who ran in his state’s primary for U.S. Senate on an explicitly pro-Trump agenda. But while Republicans have made some inroads in recent years — especially in courting Indian Americans — only a few Republican congressional candidates advanced to the general election, and they faced long odds.
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Among them was Rik Mehta, a candidate for Senate in New Jersey, who stood little chance of winning against New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Like Patel, Mehta raised a significant amount from South Asian Americans (about half of his donations came from South Asian Americans). However, so did Mehta’s opponent, Booker — in fact, he raised more dollars from South Asian Americans than Mehta did — highlighting just how hard it can be for newcomers to raise money from an ideologically diverse community, even if they share an ethnic identity.
Donating to coethnic candidates
Patel raised money primarily from Indian Americans, but he really tapped into one particular community: other Patels. Seventy percent of donations from individual contributors came from people with the last name Patel — a common last name among a subgroup of the relatively wealthy Gujarati community.
Patel told me that fundraising within his own community was the obvious place to start. “[It] was what I think every ethnic group has done in the past,” Patel said, citing how Irish Catholics tapped into community pools of money when they first began to run for office around the turn of the 20th century.
According to our analysis of publicly available campaign finance records (which list all direct contributions from individual donors of $200 or more),3 Patel was one of about a dozen South Asian Americans whose campaigns were primarily funded by other South Asian Americans in 2020. In fact, we found a fairly strong coethnic donation effect — that is, many South Asian Americans gave disproportionately to candidates who were also South Asian. (We used NamePrism, an algorithm that tries to guess a person’s ethnicity based on their name, in our analysis to see who South Asian Americans were backing.)4 In total, over a quarter of the money that we traced to donors with South Asian names was given to candidates who were also South Asian.
|Amount Donated (In Thousands)|
|Dr. Manny Sethi||R||TN||2,522||126||5|
|Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai||R||MA||149||5||3|
|Amount Donated (In Thousands)|
|Sri Preston Kulkarni||D||TX-22||4,096||1,241||30|
|Dr. Pritesh Gandhi||D||TX-10||1,064||444||42|
|Dr. Hiral Tipirneni||D||AZ-6||4,017||258||6|
|Bangar Reddy Aaloori||R||TX-22||96||95||100|
|Dr. Ami Bera||D||CA-7||810||81||10|
|Dr. Inam Hussain||D||IL-8||30||21||70|
|Dr. Bimal Patel||D||TX-18||29||8||28|
|Dr. Bisham Singh||R||MI-10||5||1||21|
The fact that many South Asian American donors are funding other South Asian Americans’ campaigns isn’t a new phenomenon — or limited to South Asian Americans. According to Jake Grumbach, a professor of political science at the University of Washington who has studied how nonwhite donors give politically, when candidates of color are on the ballot, those of the same race or ethnicity are more motivated to give. His study of political donations in general elections from 1980 to 2012 found that the effect is particularly strong among Asian Americans.
Grumbach’s study didn’t separate out Asian Americans by national origin, but a 2002 paper by Wendy K. Tam Cho, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, did. 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, though. Cho found this effect was limited to Asian Americans of the same background. That is, Chinese Americans were likely to donate 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 they would receive donations from Asian Americans, Cho found it even outweighed a candidate’s viability — perhaps helping explain why a longshot like Mehta, who ran against an incumbent like Booker, still got so much funding from other South Asian Americans.
There’s no one answer for why someone gives to a longshot campaign, but one possible explanation that Cho provides is that it can be important symbolically.
The Samosa Caucus
South Asians aren’t just backing longshot candidates, though. There have also been many successes. Take the four sitting House members of South Asian American origin — 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 has varied.
Jayapal, for example, received about $250,000 from South Asian American donors during her first run for Congress in Seattle in 2016, but that was only a small fraction of the $3 million she raised that year from her broader progressive coalition. Meanwhile, Bera and Khanna, who represent California districts near Sacramento and San Jose, respectively, received more than half of their big-dollar donations from South Asian American donors in their first runs for Congress. But as their tenure in Congress has lengthened, their funding sources have grown less reliant on South Asian American donations — especially Bera’s. Unlike the others, however, Krishnamoorthi, who represents a district in the Chicago suburbs, has actually increased his reliance on South Asian American donations since his first run for Congress in 2012, and he continues to receive a majority of his funding from South Asian Americans.
Krishnamoorthi’s continued reliance on South Asian Americans for the bulk of his donations may have something to do with his politics differing from the other Samosa Caucus members — at least when it comes to issues that touch the subcontinent. These differences expose some of the ideological and political schisms within the broader South Asian American community — even among those just participating in Democratic Party politics — and is one reason fundraising primarily from other South Asian Americans can be challenging.
Krishnamoorthi, for instance, has angered many progressive and Muslim South Asian Americans for speaking at events that are known for giving Hindu nationalist groups a platform. He was also criticized for being the only Indian American member of Congress to attend the 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston, where President Trump shared the stage with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the two leaders hailed India and America’s relationship. For his part, Krishnamoorthi has acknowledged the criticisms he’s faced, but he’s also described the situation as a catch-22, telling Politico in October that he also faces pressures from Hindu Republicans who argue “he is not sufficiently ‘sympathetic to the Indian government or Hindu nationalists.’”
Meanwhile, the other three sitting Indian American members of the House, who do not rely on as much funding from South Asian Americans, have been far more vocal in their criticism of Modi — about whom approximately half of Indian Americans approve — and Hindu nationalism. Khanna has tweeted that all Hindu American politicians should reject Hindutva (the idea that India is inherently a Hindu nation). Bera has spoken out about the importance of secularism in India, while Jayapal sponsored a bill in 2019 that urged the Indian government to stop curtailing human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, which led India’s foreign minister to cancel a meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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Not relying on funding from Indian Americans has probably made it easier for Khanna, Bera and Jayapal to openly criticize the Indian government without alienating their donor — or voter — base. But budding South Asian American politicians, many of whom primarily rely on other South Asian Americans to get their start, may be forced to confront some of these issues head on. And in the process, 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 for Congress twice, both times in Texas’s 22nd Congressional District, a historically Republican district in the suburbs of Houston that has changed rapidly in the last two decades. Ultimately, Kulkarni didn’t flip the 22nd District blue in 2018 or in 2020, but it remains fertile ground for someone like Kulkarni to run. Home to the city of Sugar Land, Texas, whose population is nearly 40 percent Asian American and where the median household income is in the six figures, the 22nd District is one of those heavily suburban districts that has become more Democratic in recent years, even if it hasn’t yet swung blue.
In both elections, Kulkarni’s strategy centered on activating Asian American voters, whom he told me others had written off. “If you’re trying to call down lists of people who donate to other Democrats, you’re not gonna see a whole lot of Asian names there as a percentage,” said Kulkarni, echoing many of the challenges Patel told me about in his first bid for office.
This fundraising strategy is how many South Asian politicians have gotten their start, and some — such as Krishnamoorthi — continue to succeed with it. But Krishnamoorthi’s district is far more Democratic-leaning than Kulkarni’s, giving him more latitude to take controversial positions. Krishnamoorthi also enjoys the benefits of being a two-term incumbent with an established base of support, while newcomer Kulkarni had to build up a coalition to win his race. This proved challenging.
“You definitely don’t have a built-in network of Democratic donors,” he said. That’s why he said he initially relied on community leaders within specific affinity groups, like Hindu groups, Telugu groups, or groups of Asian hotel owners. “The community is so tightly networked, it is kind of like a natural bundling scenario,” he said.
As you can see in the chart below, Kulkarni successfully appealed to the South Asian American community, raising more than half of his money from other South Asian Americans during his first run in 2018, as is typical of many first-time candidates. He started out his 2020 run with the support of many South Asian American donors, too, although with his higher profile and more support from the Democratic Party, he was able to diversify his base of financial support. Still, by the end of his 2020 run, about a third of his funding from individual contributors came from South Asian Americans.
Kulkarni’s coalition building went beyond just fundraising, though. He also had volunteers and campaign staff use their existing relationships to call people they knew or with whom they shared linguistic or cultural ties. Kulkarni captured national headlines for the phone banks he held in dozens of languages and for speaking to voters at both temples and mosques. His micro-targeting efforts were so specific that in our interview, he was able to cite the specific turnout numbers among those who primarily spoke Telugu or among Ismaili Muslims, members of a subsect of Islam who have a growing presence in Houston.
But while Kulkarni received support from across the South Asian diaspora in 2018, his efforts to build a multicultural South Asian coalition hit roadblocks in 2020. In September, Emgage Action, a Muslim American PAC that had endorsed Kulkarni in 2018, published a statement that they would not be endorsing him again, citing his ties to Hindu nationalist donors as well as his unwillingness to publicly condemn Modi administration policies.
Kulkarni told me that “the bottom line” on the subject was that he ran “the most inclusive campaign ever,” adding that he had more Hindu and more Muslim volunteers than any campaign in Texas history. And in a statement, Kulkarni tried to address Muslim Americans’ concerns by promising to oppose the use of two controversial Modi administration policies to strip Muslims in India of their citizenship. But for some Muslim Americans and progressives, that wasn’t enough.
The challenges Kulkarni encountered in building a “big tent coalition” in Texas’s 22nd District highlight just how difficult coalition building can be, even among South Asian Americans. And for some South Asian Americans, political support is not only about donating to candidates who look like them. The Texas chapter of They See Blue,5 an organization that mobilizes South Asian Americans to help elect Democrats, didn’t even organize for Kulkarni. In 2020, for example, they focused on flipping Texas’s state House by targeting candidates in districts with high concentrations of South Asians. Muneezeh Kabir, a young Bangladeshi American They See Blue activist who went to high school in Kulkarni’s district, explained the organization’s reasoning. “It just so happens that, for the most part, the folks running in these races are not desi, but it sends a powerful message to people,” she said: “Feel free to be proud and to provide financial support to people who look like you, but also [give to] people who don’t look like you who still support the things that are important to you.”
South Asian Americans clearly have enough money and concentrated political will at this point to help put candidates on the map. But who they choose to support — whether candidates who look like them or those who also support their causes — may ultimately shape the kind of influence this community has on U.S. politics writ large.
This story was published in collaboration with The Juggernaut. Snigdha Sur contributed editorial guidance.