On a March evening, at a meet-and-greet in a spacious, well-appointed Northern Virginia home, GOP congressional candidate Suzanne Scholte did something that not many politicians — Democratic or Republican — are likely to do during the 2014 cycle: She talked passionately about promoting freedom in foreign countries. She told her audience of approximately two dozen middle-aged people about a North Korean refugee she had helped to rescue, and trumpeted her background as “someone who has spent decades promoting human rights abroad.” “We’ve got to stand up for freedom and democracy and human rights,” she said.
These were strange words to hear from a Republican in 2014, at a moment when the party seems in thrall to the quasi-isolationism of Rand Paul. Then again, Suzanne Scholte is an unusual candidate. Not many congressional candidacies are newsworthy in foreign countries, but in mid-February, the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s paper of record, wrote an article about Scholte’s campaign, calling her “a conservative activist who has widely campaigned for human rights in North Korea.”
The seat Scholte is seeking — which represents wealthy suburbs and exurbs to the west of D.C. — is held by Democrat Gerald Connolly, who won reelection in 2012 with 61 percent of the vote. In other words, she is pretty clearly an underdog in the race.
Still, assuming that Scholte wins the GOP nomination at a convention this month — which seems likely, given that she has racked up endorsements from former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore and Tom Davis, the last Republican to hold the seat — hers will be a campaign worth watching. Arguably, it will serve as a test case for whether voters have any appetite left for aggressive internationalism — a stance that, just a few years ago, defined the Republican Party but now seems largely out of fashion.
A longtime Northern Virginia resident, Scholte began serving as head of the Defense Forum Foundation — an organization that promotes strong defense spending — in 1988. During her tenure, she says, she realized that “you need to focus on the countries that are a threat to the U.S. And every country, without exception, that was a threat to the United States was also a threat to its own people.” Over the next several years, she began organizing public testimony from Soviet, Chinese, and Cuban defectors.
In 1997, she spearheaded the first congressional hearing featuring North Korean defectors — a former colonel in the North Korean army and a diplomat. And for the next decade and a half, Scholte became consumed by the issue. In 1999, she organized the first congressional hearing on North Korea’s ghastly gulag. She went on to found the North Korea Freedom Coalition, an amalgam of some 65 NGOs working on human rights, and in 2008 she was awarded the prestigious Seoul Peace Prize. Over the past several years, she’s also begun to focus on the plight of the people of Western Sahara, who are living under Moroccan military occupation.
Scholte says “a strong national defense” is what animates her congressional campaign. “I’m very worried about national security,” she explains. “We have got to be second to none. We’ve got to remain strong.” In Congress, Scholte says she’ll relish being able to convene hearings about human-rights abuses occurring across the globe.
To be sure, in keeping with the zeitgeist, Scholte feints in a tea-party direction from time to time. She says, for example, that it was the IRS scandal that prompted her to enter the race. She also promises to repeal Obamacare and “reduce our deficit by cutting wasteful spending.” A devout Christian, Scholte sits on the executive committee of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List.
But she’s also a fierce opponent of sequestration, which Connolly voted for as part of the 2011 debt-limit deal and which she says has been “devastating to our national security.” None of this is surprising when one considers that tens of thousands of current and retired government workers, plus people who work for government contractors, reside in the district — or when one considers that her husband, a defense worker, lost his job as a result of sequestration. Nevertheless, it’s bracing, coming from a candidate representing the party of Scott Walker.
One potential electoral boon for Scholte is the local Korean population. The district includes Annandale, home to one of the largest Korean-American enclaves in the United States. (Perhaps because of this constituency, Connolly has not been indifferent to the plight of North Koreans. In 2011, he cosponsored the successful North Korean Refugee Adoption Act, which boosted U.S. efforts to aid child refugees from North Korea. His office declined to comment for this piece, on the grounds that Scholte has not yet won the nomination.)
All in all, some 40,000 voting-age Korean-Americans live in the district, according to Scholte’s campaign. But as many as 30,000 aren’t registered to vote. If they registered, they’d represent between 8 and 9 percent of the electorate; as it stands, Koreans are about 2 percent of the voting public. To that end, Scholte plans an aggressive registration drive.
Ultimately, however, the Korean vote alone is unlikely to lift Scholte to victory. If she’s going to defeat Connolly, it will be because a number of voters make the counterintuitive decision not to treat human rights and foreign policy as an afterthought. Scholte is optimistic about that. “The 11th District of Virginia is a highly educated area and a melting pot of immigrants,” she notes, pointing out that “many Northern Virginia residents fled persecution to live in America.”
In late April, Scholte took a week off from campaigning to travel to South Korea, where she launched balloons — carrying Korean translations of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — over the 38th parallel. Needless to say, she was the only American congressional candidate there.
The author is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.