Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Is Young Kim the future of the GOP?
The freshman congresswoman is hoping she can defend her seat in the coming election cycle as Republicans vie to reclaim the majority
Rep. Young Kim (R-CA) arrived in Washington last year under somewhat auspicious circumstances. The freshman lawmaker, 59, was among a group of Southern California Republicans who beat back the so-called “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms, reclaiming four of the seven seats in California that Democrats had flipped in capturing the House the prior cycle.
The GOP upsets, part of a broader “red tide” in which Democrats underperformed but still maintained their now-tenuous majority, helped contribute to the most diverse Congress in history. Kim, for her part, was among the first three Korean-American women in the House, along with Reps. Michelle Steel (R-CA) and Marilyn Strickland (D-WA).
On top of that, Kim placed first in an office lottery for new House members, winning free reign to post up at an office of her choosing. It was a relatively minor triumph, but Kim couldn’t help but notice a fortuitous parallel, since former Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-CA) — the first-term incumbent she had picked off in a 2020 rematch following a narrow defeat the previous cycle — is also a lottery winner, albeit of a higher order: He hit the jackpot more than a decade ago after purchasing a handful of Mega Millions tickets on a whim.
“I joke about how, gosh, does that mean you have to be some sort of a lottery winner in order to occupy the California 39th congressional seat?” Kim marveled last week in an interview with Jewish Insider, referring to the district she now represents, which encompasses parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino Counties. “That’s a side joke,” she hastened to add, lest her comment be taken at face value. “I really don’t mean it. I really hope that people choose their representative because they really believe that Young Kim can do the better job.”
Kim, a former state assemblywoman and longtime aide to retired Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) — whose old seat she now holds in the House — expressed confidence that voters will send her back to Congress for a second term next year. The rookie lawmaker is already facing at least two challengers in the 2022 non-partisan jungle primary, even as Cisneros, who now serves as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness in the Biden administration, has yet to indicate his plans.
Either way, Kim seems well-poised to defend her title, not least because she has already raised more than $2 million in campaign contributions, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. The congresswoman also appears to have benefited, once again somewhat serendipitously, from a new proposed congressional draft map that may tip the scales in her favor.
The map, which was released this week by California’s independent redistricting commission, augurs poorly for a number of Republicans, including Steel, Kim’s fellow Korean-American Republican in the House. But Kim was among a small group of lawmakers who emerged in better shape than they had been before. While her district leans leftward, according to a partisan voter index tabulated by The Cook Political Report, it now represents a significantly lighter shade of blue, as it currently stands. The map is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.
Even without such favorable boundaries, however, experts say that Kim would likely be in solid shape for re-election, in spite of demographic shifts that have helped put the traditionally conservative district in play for Democrats. During her time in office, Kim has made inroads not only with Republican voters but independents and some Democrats as well, according to Lori Cox Han, a professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange County, who describes the congresswoman as a moderate who has ably navigated the tumultuous internecine politics of the Trump era.
“She likes to say of herself that she’s the future of the Republican Party, and I think she’s been very smart about how she’s crafted this,” Han told JI, noting that Kim has kept herself at something of a safe remove from the former president, in style if not in substance. While the congresswoman has voiced disapproval of Trump’s behavior, she has also made sure to emphasize her favorable view of at least some of his policies, including what Han describes as a “pro-business” approach that remains popular among the old-school fiscal conservatives of Orange County.
Scot Zentner, a political scientist at California State University, San Bernardino, agreed. “She seems to have played things deftly enough,” he said of Kim, pointing in particular to a pair of early House votes that, he suggested, reflect the unique cost-benefit analysis required of center-right Republicans working within a party that remains largely in thrall to Trump.
Last January, Kim joined the majority of her Republican colleagues in the House in voting against Trump’s impeachment, sparing herself of the former president’s enduring wrath as he has vowed to unseat the 10 GOP lawmakers who broke with the party. The following month, though, Kim was the lone Republican member of California’s congressional delegation to affirm a Democratic-led motion that successfully stripped Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) of her committee assignments over past comments in which she had endorsed violence against her political opponents and perpetuated antisemitic conspiracy theories, among other things.
In a statement at the time of the vote, Kim argued that “antisemitism, conspiracy theories and threats should never be part of our political discourse,” adding: “I came to Congress to focus on policy issues that unite our country and improve the lives of my constituents in the 39th District. Comments like what we’ve seen from Rep. Greene make that more difficult and are not what the Republican Party stands for.”
“I think she is the future of the party,” Han said of Kim. “If the rest of the party would get on board with her.”
That remains to be seen. But recent surprise GOP victories, including last week’s high-profile gubernatorial upset over Terry McAuliffe in Virginia — where Glenn Youngkin successfully distanced himself from Trump despite opposition efforts to associate his candidacy with the former president’s extremism — point to a strategy that Republican candidates in swing districts across the country are likely now studying as the midterms approach.
For her part, Kim believes that the Virginia race bodes well for her prospects, and she is bullish that Republicans are on track to flip the House next year, as others have predicted. “I feel really good about it,” she told JI. “The momentum is on our side.”
But the congresswoman also suggested that last week’s outcome “should be a wake-up call for my friends on the left,” she told JI, arguing that raising taxes and “throwing money” at social issues, as she characterizes some policies of the Biden administration, are both misguided and fiscally irresponsible. “It doesn’t appear that they’ve gotten the memo.”
Despite such criticism, however, Kim, who sits on the Problem Solvers Caucus, was more eager to highlight what she describes as a steadfast commitment to bipartisan cooperation, which she views as a natural reflection of the diverse district now under her purview. “I made it very clear that I will be an independent and bipartisan voice for California’s 39th District,” she said, boasting of her success in ushering 10 bills through the House over the past 10 months, beginning in March with a piece of bipartisan legislation extending loan application deadlines for the government’s Paycheck Protection Program by two months.
In conversation with JI, Kim explained that her dedication to bipartisanship also extends to upholding support for Israel among Democrats and Republicans, even as some members of both parties have questioned that approach in recent months. “Our relationship with Israel is very, very important, and we can find common ground and work on this in a bipartisan, non-political way,” Kim said. “I am not a fan of a ‘Squad’ of this, ‘Squad’ of that,” she added, referring to the group of far-left lawmakers, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who are among the most outspoken Israel critics in the House. “That’s not me.”
“Our relationship with Israel is a matter of national security, and it should be the central part of our greater strategy in the Middle East,” Kim maintained, “where we have enduring national security interests.”
As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kim has signed on to a number of letters addressing such concerns, particularly with regard to the Iran nuclear deal. Last March, for example, she was among two dozen House lawmakers who signed a bipartisan letter — led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) — urging Secretary of State Tony Blinken “to outline a better, comprehensive deal with Iran” in consultation “with Israel and other partners in the region who are heavily impacted by Iran’s malign activities.”
During the May conflict between Israel and Hamas, Kim remained adamant “that Israel has the right to defend itself against the rockets fired by Hamas targeting our very good friends Israeli civilians,” she said, summarizing public statements she made at the time. “Israel also has a responsibility to work to protect the people of Palestine and ensure that they do not live in fear of violence,” she added. “I called for both sides working together to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible and return to negotiating a peaceful settlement where respect, forgiveness and mutual understanding are prioritized.”
Her even-handed foreign policy positions have earned plaudits from the pro-Israel community, including an endorsement in July from Pro-Israel America, the bipartisan advocacy group. The congresswoman, PIA’s executive director, Jeff Mendelsohn, said in a recent statement to JI, “proudly stood with Israel during the rocket attacks fired by Hamas in May and has taken a strong stand against Iran’s malign activities.” Kim, he added, “has already declared her strong opposition to” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel and “openly advocated for security assistance to Israel without unnecessary political conditions.”
This coming February, Kim said she will embark on her first visit to Israel with a delegation of freshmen House Republicans. The trip, sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation, had been planned for August but was postponed due to pandemic-related concerns.
As an immigrant from South Korea whose grandparents lived through communism — and whose in-laws, she said, defected from North Korea — Kim described what she regards as a personal obligation to speak out against human rights violations in that region. She characterized such activism as “the cornerstone” of her foreign affairs work. “People still live under oppression,” she said. “People are still trying to defect from North Korea because of starvation while the regime is benefiting from all these illicit activities.”
“What’s happening on the Korean Peninsula, what’s happening in the Taiwan Strait, what’s happening in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, especially those who came to the United States in pursuit of happiness and freedom after the fall of Saigon — my friends from Vietnam, from Cambodia, I talk to them on a regular basis,” said Kim, whose constituents include a sizable population of Asian-American voters. “I need to speak out and be their advocate and champion.”
On the domestic front, Kim has watched with dismay as anti-Asian violence has risen sharply during the pandemic. “It’s really sad that COVID-19 has exacerbated the rise in hate crimes against minorities,” she told JI, expressing her support for legislation, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), increasing Justice Department resources to track and combat hate crimes. “But the more important thing is this,” Kim said. “No matter what we do legislatively, we cannot legislate a people’s hate out of our hearts and minds.”
“We need to make sure that we don’t put blame on one person, one ethnicity,” she added, making what seemed like a thinly veiled jab at Trump, whose racially insensitive comments during the beginning of the pandemic, including one in which he described the coronavirus as “kung flu,” Kim was quick to condemn. “Those perpetrators of hate crimes,” she said, “should work to make restitution of those affected.”
Sam Markstein, national political director at the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that Kim was among the group’s “first round of House endorsements for the 2022 midterms,” describing the congresswoman as “an independent voice for her district” who has “showcased her ability to win voters’ support across the political spectrum, including key support from independents and Democrats.”
In 2022, Markstein told JI, “we expect she will do so again.”
Regardless of how her district is drawn, Kim said she hopes that voters of all stripes will feel positively about her tenure when they cast their ballots in the coming cycle.
“Over the past couple of decades, the district has turned slowly to what is now a very purple district, and so people are looking for someone who can exercise their own independence and their own thinking,” she told JI. “I believe that I have provided that.”