WASHINGTON, D.C.—Former diplomat Sri Preston Kulkarni’s thumping victory in the Democratic primary for Texas’ District 22, has Indian American political activists and observers excited about the potential of a fifth Indian American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Currently, the four Indian American members who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives — all Democrats — are four-term member Ami Bera, of California, and two-term members Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, Ro Khanna of California, and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois.
Kulkarni, 41, who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 losing to four-term Republican incumbent Pete Olson by just 5 percentage points, this time around won’t have the latter to reckon with because Olson, apparently cognizant of the changing demographics in the district has decided to not run for re-election, thus creating an open seat.
On Mar. 3, Kulkarni won the primary, garnering 53.1 percent or 34,579 votes, comfortably crushing Pearland City Council Member Derrick Reed, who received 24.7 percent or 16,000 votes and attorney Nyanza Davis Moore who was able to muster only 14.5 percent or 9,435 votes.
In November, Kulkarni will go up against either Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls or businesswoman and GOP mega donor Kathaleen Wall who received 40.6 percent and 19.5 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, and will now compete in a runoff election on May 26.
The only other two candidates among the 13 GOP candidates who received more than 10 percent were Pierce Bush and Greg Hill, who received 15.5 percent and 14.1 percent respectively.
When Olson announced in July 2019 that he would not seek re-election, it triggered what the Houston Chronicle described as a "political free-for-all" and helped make this U.S. House Republican primary the largest in the state.
Immediately after his convincing primary victory in the district rated as a "toss up" by The Cook Political Report, Kulkarni in appreciating the support of he received from the burgeoning population of Democratic voters, including several thousands of recently registered immigrants turned citizens tweeted, "Thank you for your support! We couldn't have gotten here without your help and your support.”
Meanwhile, political neophyte, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, a physician, who has also thrown his hat into the Congressional ring, seeking the Democratic nomination from the 10th District of Texas to challenge an entrenched Republican incumbent Mike McCaul in November, came in second to Mike Siegel, an attorney and longtime civil rights activist, who had clinched the Democratic nomination in 2018 but couldn’t garner the required 50 percent of the vote this time around to avoid a run-off with Gandhi.
Siegel received 44 percent or 35,450 votes while Gandhi and Shannon Hutcheson received 33.1 percent or 26,683 votes and 22.9 percent or 18, 506 votes, respectively.
Even if Gandhi, a progressive Democrat, running on a platform of healthcare reform—including issues such as expanding Medicare and access to reproductive health-- and poverty alleviation, prevails over Siegel in the May 26 runoff, which analysts predict is highly unlikely in the runoff, he would have a much tougher fight to defeat McCaul, an influential lawmaker who is the ranking Republican on the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee and is close to Trump.
When Gandhi announced his intent to run last year, he said, “This campaign is about renewing our collective commitment to core American values of dignity, fairness, opportunity, and duty,” and vowed that he would “not take one penny from corporate special interests.”
He said his campaign “will be fueled by everyday people, so you will always know who we are fighting for.”
Longtime Democratic Party activist and fund-raiser Shekar Narasimhan, the founder and chairman of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Victory Fund—the first and only Asian American Super PAC(Political Action Committee), which is focused on mobilizing AAPI voters —which has endorsed Kulkarni and Gandhi, was thrilled with Kulkarni’s strong performance and was optimistic that Kulkarni was poised to win in the general election in Nov. is this “changed” district.
He told India Abroad that “the demographics in his district has changed a lot and his run the last time and his very unusual campaign, drove a lot of new people to the polls. So, not only is that group activated, but everybody else is activated too.”
In 2018, Kulkarni’s campaign, coveting the new voters, especially the older immigrants in the Asian American community and the changing demographics, that brought an influx of Latinos to the district, would call voters in their native languages, including Vietnamese, Mandarin, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi and Spanish.
Narasimhan said the incumbent, Olson, apparently saw the “writing on the wall” in that with the changing demographics and the tough race he ran with Kulkarni in 2018 had “decided that he can’t do this anymore.”
“So, it’s an open seat and probably the most difficult candidate to beat for Preston would have been Pierce Bush because he has the Bush name in Houston. But the guy loses in the primary to someone on the hard right and now suddenly, Preston’s chances are looking very good.”
Narasimhan acknowledged, “Of course, nobody can predict the future, but if things go as they have for him and the way the chips have fallen, we will see our fifth Indian American Congressman come November.”
With regard to Gandhi, he said, “Pritesh has done well and he’s in a runoff and he’s a first time candidate, and remember how these people have come up like Preston, Hiral (Tipirneni, running in Arizona’s 6th District) and Aftab (Pureval, who ran in Ohio’s 1st District)—not all happens in the first time. It takes a little while and then boom, you have it.”
Narasimhan reiterated that fortunately, “Preston is running in a district that is moving in our direction (with the influx of Asian Americans and other immigrant groups) as opposed to Hiral. So, she needs a big wave to push her.”
“So, I am really looking forward to having our 5th Indian American member of Congress, and who knows, if Hiral pulls it off, we may be able to have even a sixth member,” he said.
In other primaries on Mar. 3, incumbents Ami Bera and Ro Khanna, registered easy victories in their respective seventh and 17th Congressional Districts in California.
Bera, the longest-serving Indian-American U.S. lawmaker, who is seeking his fifth consecutive term, in the open primary (both Democrats and Republicans) received 45.3 percent or 40,164 votes, while Republican Buzz Patterson, received 37.9 percent or 33,964 votes and will face each other in Nov.
As per California laws, the top two contestants, irrespective of their party affiliations, will have their names on the ballots of the general election.
Patterson, a retired 20-year military combat pilot in the U.S. Air Force, was also a former White House military aide in the National Security Council, and is a best-selling author, and popular conservative public speaker.
He has described Bera as “a reliable Democrat vote for Nancy Pelosi rather than for District 7,” and bemoaned that the “high unemployment in the district, jobs, homeless vagrants and homeless veterans,” is the reason “why so many Californians are moving to Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona. (But) I want to stay and fight.”
Jon Ivy, a Republican, and Jeff Burdick, a Democrat, place third and fourth, receiving 7.6 percent or 6,806 votes and 6.8 percent or 6,081 votes, respectively.
Khanna seeking a third consecutive term, amassed more than 65 percent or 46,657 votes, while Ritesh Tandon, running on the Republican ticket--who is being sponsored and promoted by a group of California Hindu Americans who have founded a Hindu American Political Action Committee led by multimillionaire physician and community leader in the Bay Area, Dr. Romesh Japra to oppose Khanna—came in a distant second with 24.2 percent or 17,337 votes.
Democrat Stephen Forbes who received 8.4 percent of the vote, and Libertarian Joe Dehn who got a measly 2.4 percent, brought up the rear.
Khanna, whose district includes much of Silicon Valley, in a tweet, immediately after the results were known, said, "I am so grateful to everyone for our victory tonight. We are exceeding our 2018 totals, beating Ritesh Tandon who ran on Islamophobia and right-wing nationalism in India.”
“We are getting the most votes in the Bay Area! Silicon Valley rejects bigotry," he said.
Khanna’s re-election campaign war chest has over $2.5 million, while Tandon has been able to raise only about $30,000.
Later in an interview with India Abroad, Khanna said that he is “humbled by the overwhelming victory. We won more votes against Ritesh Tandon than I have in any primary in my career.”
“This shows that the district overwhelmingly supports my pluralism and commitment to building an inclusive coalition,” he said.
Khanna reiterated that “I am so grateful that I received the highest percentage vote of any of the Silicon Valley members. It shows the strong foundation that we have built in the district.”
He pointed out that “when you look at the precinct breakdown, you will see we won nearly 80 percent of the Indian American vote, and so, I am so honored to have so much support from the community.”
And, taking a hefty swipe at the likes of Tandon and his Hindutva supporters, including his patron, Japra, Khanna argued, “I am glad the communal politics of India were soundly rejected here.”
“This is the United States of America,” he declared, and added, “Indian Americans have no tolerance for sectarian division or nationalism.”
In California’s 11th District, which is in the state’s East Bay area, three-term incumbent Democrat Mark DeSaulnier blew away Republican Nisha Sharma, also being supported by Japra’s Hindu American PAC with 68.5 percent or 78,976 votes to Sharma’s approximately 25 percent. But as the lone GOP candidate running, she will go on to challenge DeSaulnier in Nov. but is expected to suffer an ignominious defeat in this largely Democratic defeat.
Sharma, however, has done a little better than Tandon, raising $57,000 to fund her campaign.