SANTA ANA, CA – Bill Clinton is wagging his finger and issuing a warning to a crowd of about 800 voters gathered in front of the Old Orange County Courthouse in downtown Santa Ana. For the first time in his nearly 30 minute speech, the former president adopts a lecturing tone. “Don’t badmouth [Loretta Sanchez’s] opponent. He’s an honorable man who’s lived an honorable life, and he’s made a good contribution,” he says. Clinton isn’t finished praising the Republican opponent of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), whom he’s come to support in her floundering re-election campaign. Without referencing him by name, Clinton calls Van Tran “impressive” and “an American success story,” much to the surprise of the 30 or so pro-Tran demonstrators standing along the perimeter of the assembled coterie of Democratic partisans. The crowd, dotted with SEIU purple and “Yes on 19” buttons, applauds tepidly.
“Let’s pull the tape and splice together the clips of Bubba praising Van,” George Andrews barks into his cell phone. Andrews, a 26-year-old San Franciscan of Indian descent, is Tran’s campaign manager. Team Tran had a camera-toting tracker embedded in the audience, recording every moment of the rally. “I bet Loretta wasn’t expecting that,” he chuckles. Andrews and Tran find themselves in the thick of an improbable election fight: Andrews is a rookie campaign chief seeking to shepherd Tran, a first-time Congressional candidate, to victory over an incumbent who won 69 percent of the vote two years ago. In order to pull off the massive upset, the pair must skillfully traverse one of the most complex political landscapes in the nation: California’s 47th Congressional District.
“This is a trilingual race,” Andrews tells me over a lunch of steaming bowls of Pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup dish. “There is no other targeted congressional race in the country with these dynamics.” That may be an understatement. CA-47 is a socially conservative district that strongly backed Prop 8—the state’s anti-same sex marriage Constitutional amendment—on the same day it voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by an overwhelming 22 points. Whites are a minority in the district, making up roughly 35 percent of the electorate; 50 percent of CA-47’s voters are Hispanic, and the remaining 15 percent are Vietnamese.