A mystery Democratic House candidate who dropped $1 million of his own money into California’s 39th Congressional District race in the last two months has ties to Donald Trump supporters — links that deserve scrutiny in light of the fact that his candidacy threatened to lock Democrats out of the general election.

It’s a final wild twist in a House election called “the weirdest race in the country” by Politico. The unusual plot turn involves an assortment of Chinese-Americans in and around politics targeting the diverse 39th District.

Dr. Herbert Lee, a gastroenterologist with practices in Irvine and Rowland Heights, California, was a political unknown with an off-the-shelf campaign website and P.O. box for a campaign headquarters, until Federal Election Commission disclosures in the final reporting period showed he loaned himself $800,000 for the effort. He added another $200,000 on May 29, making it a cool million. He suddenly started showing up at events and in the field.

His last-minute expenditures appear to target ethnic voters, with Spanish- and Chinese-language advertising buys in print, TV, radio, and digital, along with a flurry of mailers and a texting and in-person canvass. He ended up pulling 4.1 percent of the vote, which could have been enough to influence the race, but Democratic voters ultimately consolidated around Gil Cisneros, pushing him into second place and assuring him a place in the general election.

Usually candidates try to get their message out before a campaign’s final weeks. Lee didn’t even stay in the district before the election, leaving to attend a “Digestive Disease Week” conference in Washington. So while spending a lot of money, he doesn’t appear to be trying to win.

California has an unusual primary structure, where all candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters advance regardless of party. The 39th, a key district in the Democrats’ plan to take over Congress, would be prime territory for a sock-puppet campaign. It is possible that Lee is running a genuine, quixotic campaign with obscure purposes that only coincidentally damages Democratic chances of making it through the top-two primary — anything is possible in this race — but the mere possibility that he is in the race to game the outcome suggests a debilitating flaw in California’s new primary system.

A woman named Yuyan Vernon from Elkhorn, Nebraska, takes credit on Facebook as the “manage(r)” of Lee’s campaign. In an interview with The Intercept, Vernon said she runs social media for the candidate.

Vernon’s Facebook feed is filled with anti-Hillary Clinton memes, pro-Trump posts, and pictures of her at the 2016 Republican National Convention with a white “Chinese Americans Love Trump” shirt.

The shirt is a trademark of an organization called Chinese Americans for Trump, which got a little notoriety in the 2016 campaign for its devotion to Trump, including flying pro-Trump aerial messages above 32 cities. The group traveled to the White House and RNC headquarters this April, and appears to be supporting Travis Allen for California governor, using the same aerial billboard tactics.

Vernon is also a Republican donor who gave $2,356 to Trump in the 2016 cycle, $5,000 to the RNC, and $900 to the California Republican Party. There’s a picture of her from June 2016 with Trump. Her most recent Facebook post encourages votes for Lee, as well as Trump-supported Republican John Cox for California governor.

In the interview, Vernon copped to going by Iva Vernon, and donating to Republicans and Trump. She said she was not a member of Chinese Americans for Trump, though a now-defunct Twitter feed with her name contains several posts promoting the group’s activities.

“We promote for the Asian-Americans,” she said. “I can help a Democrat. It doesn’t mean that if [Lee] runs as a Democrat I have to run away.”

One of Lee’s larger campaign disbursements, for $162,521.65, went to a company called “Alpha Elephant Data,” based in Delaware. The disbursement is for “campaigning,” which campaign finance attorney Adam Bonin says is “absolutely not a proper disbursement category for FEC purposes.” The bundling of the categories obscures just what Alpha Elephant Data is doing for the candidate.

The Delaware Division of Corporations lists Elephant Data LLC as being created in February 2018. The company website says it is “revolutionizing conservative campaign solutions.” A Whois lookup of the website shows it registered to an “Iva Vernon” of Omaha, Nebraska, with the address of a company called Midwest Agricultural International. On LinkedIn, Yuyan Vernon lists herself as a marketing director for Midwest Agricultural.

Vernon admitted that she is the part-owner of Elephant Data, saying that they run data analytics and media placement for Lee’s campaign. She confirmed that the company started in February, has no other congressional clients, and began working with Lee only a couple months ago.

Asked how she and Lee connected, given that she lives in Nebraska, Vernon said, “I would like not to say right now. If he wins, I’ll tell you more.” She promised to make Lee available for an interview, but that never happened.

David Tian Wang, the founder of Chinese Americans for Trump, lives in the 39th District, in Diamond Bar. In an interview, he said that his organization has not endorsed in the race and that he has personally supported the three Republicans running, who are “all my friends.” When asked if he knew of Yuyan Vernon, he said no. “My volunteers are not my employees, they can do what they want,” he said.

Wang did say he supported George Shen, a Republican candidate in the recall election of state Sen. Josh Newman, whose district overlaps with the 39th. Shen has spent over $65,000 with Elephant Data for “campaign literature and mailings,” according to state campaign finance databases.

Asked about this, Wang said he wasn’t aware of it. “My organization is not a voting bloc where people vote where I tell them to,” he said. “Some people are in the Chinese-American party, you know? They would like to support anybody with last name Chang or Wang or Lee, they don’t care about political affiliation.”

A Twitter account supporting Lee, @WenWang71162419, seems to be directly connected to the campaign. Lee himself appeared to post a photo, perhaps accidentally, from that handle with the caption, “At University of California alumni fund raising event with wife Sharlyn.”

A local Republican activist in the area named Wendy Wang appears to be part of Chinese Americans for Trump, as she is involved in the aerial billboarding for Travis Allen. David Tian Wang said he didn’t recognize Wendy. “I only remember people by their WeChat handles,” he said.

Lee has appeared on a podcast catering to Chinese-American Republicans called Mandarin GOP, where the host continually, if gently, praises the candidate. “After talking to you, I think you may be a Democrat, but you are not a socialist, so that’s the good part,” the host told him. “You say what you mean and mean what you say, so you certainly earn my respect.” The podcast is a production of the Asian American GOP Coalition, which has vague ties to Chinese Americans for Trump. A donor to the AAGC? Iva Vernon.

Despite ties to Republicans, Lee was able to snag an endorsement from the Asian American Democratic Club, a national organization formed in 2016. The club wrote in a statement that they gave the endorsement after a “thorough vetting process including telephone interview.” Calls and emails to the AADC were not returned.

Lee has yet to file a required financial disclosure to the House Ethics Committee; a spokesperson told the Center for Responsive Politics that he would file it after the election. This makes his financial assets, the source of the million-dollar donation, for now unknowable. The FEC had to write his campaign in order to get him to file his expenditures electronically to make them easily searchable.

Lee’s positions, meanwhile, are all over the map. He supports California’s single-payer health care bill, SB 562, but opposes the state gas tax increase (which is not a federal issue). A mailer with a Bible quote from Proverbs touts his “conservative achievement,” along with the need for “tax relief” and to “revise welfare”; but his TV ad begins, “We Democrats will unite the country by fighting for justice and equality,” going on to rather awkwardly check the box on numerous liberal issues, from equal rights for women to exorbitant executive compensation.

Another Lee social media post reads: “Dr. Herbert Lee will represent CA 39 in Washington for ALL the people, Republicans, and Democrats, working and retired, forgotten men and women, fortunate and unfortunate,” seemingly trying to get every ideological perspective crammed into one sentence.

Lee and his supporters have attacked Republican Young Kim and virtually all the Democrats in the race, from Andy Thorburn to Mai Khanh Tran to Gil Cisneros. These social media posts have little reach, but $1 million can narrow-cast such messages in concentrated fashion.

There are, however, two candidates Lee has largely declined to attack with his last-minute blast of spending: Bob Huff and Shawn Nelson, the two Republicans vying for top two along with Young Kim. Huff’s wife, Mei Mei Huff, is Chinese-American.

With four major candidates running besides Lee, any split in the vote among Democrats would give Huff and Nelson an opportunity to slip into that top two. 

Top photo: President Donald Trump departs after attending a “Celebration of America” event at the White House on June 5, 2018.