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Blong Xiong would make history as the first Hmong American in Congress, if elected this November.

The Fresno city councilman and Laos-born refugee is energizing the country’s fast-growing Hmong community, which has helped launch his campaign financially with a series of Midwest fundraisers. But to Democrats in Washington, D.C., Xiong represents something else: their best hope of retaining a heavily Hispanic, central California seat that is a top Republican target and among their most vulnerable.

Xiong wasn’t the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first choice as it searched for a candidate to hold the redrawn 21st district. But after more desirable recruits passed on the race and Xiong proved a capable fundraiser and hired a strong consulting team, the DCCC threw him its support. The campaign arm added him to its Emerging Races list, which identifies candidates who are running smart campaigns and making a district competitive.

“We’re going to continue to count on my community, but the big piece is really the broader support that we’ve now gotten,” Xiong, 43, told Roll Call. “The Emerging Race status means a great deal and opens an even larger base for us.”

Xiong didn’t file his candidacy papers until the March 9 deadline. But thanks largely to Hmong support, he raised $145,000 in about a month. The U.S. Hmong population is now about 260,000, according to the 2010 census, up almost 40 percent since 2000.

The demographic’s highest concentrations are in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Xiong made two trips to St. Paul, Minn., during the first quarter to kick off his fundraising. Out of the $139,000 Xiong raised from individuals last quarter, about $33,000 came from the Hmong communities based in the Midwest.

“Obviously it’s very personal to the Hmong community, not just here in California but throughout the country,” Xiong said. “This is the first opportunity that the community has had anybody to participate in the government at this level.”

The DCCC is optimistic that Xiong’s month-old campaign can help maximize its potential for gains in the Golden State, where the party could pick up half a dozen seats. But GOP state Assemblyman David Valadao is considered a top-tier candidate, and the National Republican Congressional Committee views the 21st district as a major pickup opportunity.

Valadao won his first bid for office in 2010 in an assembly district that overlaps the 21st considerably. He won more than 60 percent of the vote against a well-known Democrat in a district that had a 10-point Democratic voter registration edge, as does the 21st. Valadao is the only Republican of the three candidates running in the June 5 all-party primary, so he is virtually assured of advancing to the general election. Under California law, the top two vote-getters in the primary proceed to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is helping to lead GOP efforts in the state and has taken a particular interest in this district, which abuts his own. He recently held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., that raised $100,000 each for three Republican candidates running in open seats, including Valadao and state Sens. Tony Strickland and Doug LaMalfa, and he just held another event for Valadao in Bakersfield, Calif.

“I’m heavily involved throughout California, but this will be out my backdoor,” McCarthy said. “We’re heavily involved and plan on bringing this one home. I think we win this one early to be able to go after the other ones.”

A combination of redistricting and retirements has caused upheaval within the California delegation, including in the 21st district, which stretches from the Fresno area through Kings County and down to Bakersfield, McCarthy’s hometown. Rep. Jim Costa (D), who currently represents much of the territory within this new district, was moved into the new 16th district in redistricting and opted to run there after Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D) announced his retirement.

Five months ago, the 21st district appeared to offer one of the most competitive races in the state, with a matchup between two young lawmakers in their first terms in Sacramento. But state Sen. Michael Rubio, a favorite of state and national Democrats, surprisingly dropped out in December, leaving Valadao, the Republican dairy farmer, as the favorite to win this fall.

Former state Sen. Dean Florez (D) and former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D), a gubernatorial candidate in the 2003 recall election, briefly considered running but demurred. Had Costa and Rubio not successfully recruited Xiong, it’s likely that Democrats would have ceded the district to the Republicans.

In addition to monopolizing the support of national and state Democratic leaders, Xiong has far outraised the only other Democrat running, John Hernandez.

Questions remain whether Xiong, who lives outside the district, can win this rural seat and inspire one of the largest Hispanic populations in the country to vote for someone who hasn’t represented it before.

The district’s population is 71 percent Hispanic, and the citizen voting age population is 49 percent Hispanic. Of the 10 districts in the country with a larger overall Hispanic population, just two are represented by someone non-Hispanic.

Xiong has broken barriers before. After fleeing Laos to Thailand as a child, he immigrated to the United States at age 5, eventually landing in Wisconsin. After graduating from college there, Xiong moved to California and began working as a community organizer. In 2006, he became the first Hmong elected to a city council seat in California.

“I’ve been working with the Latino community for a long time. It’s nothing new for us,” Xiong said. “I don’t think Sen. Rubio or Congressman Costa … or the Latino leaders would support me if I didn’t have the long history of working with our Latino community here in the Central Valley.”

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