Cao Pegged as Short-Timer Following Historic Win

Posted December 8, 2008 at 6:33pm

Republican Anh Cao’s victory Saturday in Louisiana’s overwhelmingly Democratic 2nd district is being hailed as the biggest upset of the 2008 cycle.

And if the Congressman-elect somehow manages to win re-election to his seat in two years, he will probably also earn the distinction of pulling off the biggest upset of the 2010 cycle.

Cao, who will be the first Vietnamese-American Member of Congress, beat nine-term Rep. William Jefferson (D), who is black, in a district where the African- American population is 64 percent. He won by fewer than 2,000 votes against a Member who has been plagued by scandal for the past two election cycles. And while national Democrats chose to stay out of the race for fear of being connected to the embattled Congressman, national Republicans got involved in the final days of the 2nd district contest to help turn the tide for Cao.

The Republican National Committee spent about $84,000 in coordinated funds to help Cao and the National Republican Congressional Committee dropped about $58,000 in independent expenditures on the race. The NRCC effort included about $18,000 for targeted auto-dialing, $27,000 for direct mail and a field organization that included four paid staffers on the ground and 50 volunteers. The NRCC effort was headed up by Texas Republican consultant Chris Homan, an operative with ties to incoming NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas).

Since Saturday, Cao’s victory has been hailed by Republicans on Capitol Hill who are still celebrating a victory by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) in Georgia’s Senate runoff last week.

“As House Republicans look ahead to the next two years, the Cao victory is a symbol of what can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative, and work aggressively to earn the trust of the American people,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an e-mail to House Republicans Sunday night.

But Democrats are calling Cao’s victory an aberration, pointing out that along with Jefferson’s baggage — he is fighting a federal indictment on bribery and corruption charges — Republicans got an advantage out of an amended state election calendar that scheduled the 2nd district general election for early December, when turnout was incredibly low. Cao himself has admitted in interviews that a larger turnout would have hurt his chances on Saturday.

But, barring another major hurricane, the 2010 election should bring a turnout that more closely reflects the makeup of the district. And now that the flawed Jefferson has been ousted, Democrats will be free to find a candidate who doesn’t have Jefferson’s baggage.

This year, Jefferson faced a half-dozen challengers in the Democratic primary and won a runoff against former television news anchor Helena Moreno, the lone white candidate in the race.

“It’s going to be a question of will African-American politicians get together and get the strongest candidate to win the primary,” said John Maginnis, who pens a weekly newsletter on Louisiana politics. “I think Cao will be endangered … but he’ll always have a place in Louisiana history.”

On Monday, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, who also ran in the 2nd district Democratic primary, said he is “strongly considering” another primary bid and added that he does not expect the Democratic field to be as split as it was this year.

“To the extent that Congressman-elect Cao moves away from the far right towards the center, it may improve his chances, but I think it’s going to be a difficult job for him to keep that seat,” Richmond said.

But Bryan Wagner, a former New Orleans city councilman who served as a close adviser to Cao during his long-shot campaign, said the Congressman-elect isn’t concerning himself with speculation about what might happen in two years.

“He’s looking at the job trying to figure out what he can do,” Wagner said.

Cao, a lawyer and former Jesuit seminarian, came to the U.S. as a child refugee from Vietnam. He is well-known in New Orleans’ Vietnamese community, particularly for his work following Hurricane Katrina, and he gained some recognition in his failed bid for state Representative in 2007. Wagner said that since his victory Saturday, Cao has become a star in the Vietnamese community and has been inundated with calls, especially from Vietnamese media seeking interviews.

But Wagner said Cao is keeping himself grounded.

Cao “believes he is supposed to serve the people of his district. That’s what he believes his mission is. His mission is not to build a career,” Wagner said.