Over the last several months, a host of Republican congressmen have announced that they won’t seek reelection this cycle, leaving their House seats open and vulnerable to Democratic pickup.
While polling data remain far from uniform on the chances of a “blue wave” sweeping Democrats into Washington in November, Republican politicians are right to be concerned. But in California’s 16th district, a young Republican woman is rising to the challenge, opposing Democratic congressman Jim Costa, who has held the seat since 2013 (and represented a somewhat different district for the previous four terms before redistricting).
The 16th district is located in California’s central San Joaquin Valley. It includes the western half of Fresno as well as the cities of Los Banos, Madera, and Merced, and it hasn’t been represented by a Republican in Congress since the mid 1970s, before redistricting gave it its current shape.
But 32-year-old Elizabeth Heng hopes to change that.
Heng’s parents immigrated to the United States to escape violence in Cambodia. About a decade ago, after she graduated from Stanford University, where she had served as student-body president, she returned to the Central Valley and opened a series of cell-phone stores with her brothers. Eventually, she found herself responsible for managing about 75 employees. “That was when I saw firsthand how government regulations impacted businesses negatively,” she says. “I constantly felt that from Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, they were saying that I was everything wrong with our country, when all I was doing was creating jobs.”
She subsequently decided to leave California to work in Washington, D.C., not expecting to stay long. “But it takes a long time to understand how to get legislation across the finish line,” she explains. Before she knew it, she had been in the nation’s capital for about six years, on and off. At one point, she worked on the House Foreign Affairs Committee with congressman Ed Royce (R., Calif.). At another, she aided Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Nevada.
In 2016, Heng became a director for President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony — a role she held even as she traveled to Connecticut in her off hours to obtain an MBA at Yale. (“Never be one of the inauguration directors and get your MBA at the same time,” Heng says of that experience. “It was the worst of all worlds.”) When the inauguration finally took place, she remembers how powerful it was to watch her immigrant parents sitting on the stage with the incoming president.
‛In a family or a business, we don’t suddenly act surprised when a budget comes up for the year,’ she points out. ‛We get it done. But Congress doesn’t.’
“One of my brothers posted online that day: ‘Thirty-three years ago, my parents came to the U.S. as penniless refugees. Today they’re sitting on the platform with the next President of the United States.’ It was at that moment that I realized why I continue to dedicate my life to public service,” Heng says.
But she still wasn’t sure she wanted to run for office. She missed her family, and, wanting to be closer to them, returned to the Central Valley once again. After having seen firsthand how Washington works, she knew how much time and talent are wasted to accomplish very little. “When you watch a government shutdown take place, for example, you realize that oftentimes we know the government is only shut down as a tactic, whether because of votes or fundraising or whatever else,” she says. So she decided to run for office herself, on a platform, first and foremost, of fiscal responsibility. “In a family or a business, we don’t suddenly act surprised when a budget comes up for the year,” she points out. “We get it done. But Congress doesn’t.”
To her, this speaks to a need for generational diversity within Congress. “I have been standing on the sidelines for a long time waiting for a young, exciting candidate to speak up for the issues that matter to you and me,” she says. “If there are bad policies coming out of Washington, they will affect young people like us more than anyone else. But I realized that candidate wasn’t coming, so I decided to step up and be that young leader myself.”
So far, her campaign has focused on a handful of largely innocuous issues such as clean water and education reform. But, perhaps surprisingly — given her goal of unseating a seven-term Democrat in California — the bulk of her substantive policy suggestions center on immigration.
“Democrats and Republicans both, for far too long, have kicked the can down the road,” Heng says. “Look at DACA. The name itself says ‘deferred action.’ Every facet of this system is broken and no one on either side will take responsibility.”
Heng says she favors a legislative solution to offer legal status to the young people currently covered by DACA, along with an increase in both H-1B and H-1B2 visas to allow temporary workers to come to the U.S. — but she also believes that any such reforms must be coupled with increased border security. When asked, she says she has to look at E-Verify more closely before taking an official position.
On President Trump, meanwhile, Heng takes a pretty standard Republican candidate’s stance. “I’m supportive of him,” she says. “However, I’m my own person, and I’ll agree with him where I do and disagree where I don’t.” Though the 16th district certainly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Heng believes that some of the voters in the area are slowly coming around to Trump, at least on some issues.
If she’s right, the young Republican just might have a chance to knock off a sitting Democrat and flip a seat that’s been blue for decades back to red. Republican success in November is far from certain, but with the emergence of candidates such as Heng, the spate of GOP retirements has become a bit easier for conservatives to stomach.