GOP Finds an Unlikely New Hero in Louisiana

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Less than 24 hours after his upset defeat of a longtime Democratic congressman from New Orleans, Anh "Joseph" Cao found the weight of the entire Republican Party resting on his diminutive shoulders.

The chairman of the Republican National Committee said Cao's election Saturday night showed that, even battered and bruised from political drubbings in the past two years, Republicans "still know how to win elections." House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was more blunt, issuing a memo Sunday declaring: "The future is Cao."

Yet just three weeks ago, no one in the GOP establishment had even heard of Cao. They didn't know his improbable story of triumph -- how he fled war-torn Vietnam after the fall of Saigon as an 8-year-old refugee jammed into a helicopter. Now they've seized on his rags-to-political riches story, along with the victory last week of Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a special election in Georgia, as rare pieces of good news after the dismal November elections.

"We did feel very neglected," Cao said in a telephone interview yesterday, suggesting that the little financial support that did come in the final week of the campaign "may have hurt us more than anything else. We were running a campaign of reform."

Cao, 41, ran as a reform-minded conservative against Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), a nine-term incumbent who won reelection in 2006 despite widespread publicity about the FBI finding $90,000 in his freezer during a 2005 raid on his home. Cao, the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, plans to take a victory lap through Washington this week.

After fleeing Vietnam as a child, Cao bounced around homes in several states with his sister and a brother before settling with an uncle in Houston. One of eight children, he did not see his mother or father, a former Vietnamese army officer who was imprisoned by Ho Chi Minh's government, until 1991. Cao graduated from Baylor University in 1990 and began studying to become a Jesuit priest. He went on several missions before attending law school in New Orleans.

After graduating in the late 1990s, he started a law practice and volunteered to help other boat refugees from Vietnam. His home and law firm were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but he rebuilt both, and this summer, he began his seemingly quixotic quest for public office.

A registered independent most of his adult life, the 5-foot-2 Cao paid $900 to the Louisiana secretary of state to file as the only GOP challenger in the 2nd Congressional District to Jefferson, who was indicted on multiple felony counts in 2007 for allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from contractors looking for his help in securing work in Africa. Cao said his goal was to just send a message to New Orleans officials that everyone had to be held accountable.

"I qualified for this one not really hoping to win. We finally realized this was a race we could actually win," Cao said.

Jefferson has been largely estranged from the Democratic leadership, which stripped him of his plum assignment on the House Ways and Means Committee and did little to support him in this election cycle. Those woes aside, however, no one in Washington gave Cao a chance.

Boehner never met him, nor did he or any other House Republican give his campaign a single penny from their political accounts. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent more than $1 million to hold on to a neighboring House seat, offered just $50,000 to help Cao turn out votes in heavily Democratic New Orleans. Headline writers for the American Spectator, the lone conservative magazine to provide a major profile of the movement's newfound hero, mixed up the pronunciation of his name -- it's pronounced "gow," but the Spectator punned, "Should Congress Have a Cao?"

GOP aides privately confessed to watching his campaign commercials yesterday on YouTube to learn how to say the name correctly.

"We did not see a scenario where a Republican could win that district," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won the district with 75 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential race -- Barack Obama's totals in the district last month have not been computed -- and 64 percent of the voting-age population is African American.

Gonzales and other independent handicappers rated more than 70 House races as potential battlegrounds but did not count the Jefferson race among them. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, relegated coverage of Cao to its "Under the Radar" feature.

By late November, Cao had spent just $47,000 on his campaign, with nearly $70,000 in loans providing the bulk of his funds. Under indictment, Jefferson still raised more than $800,000, with financial backing from fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

While his home was ruined by Katrina, a different storm provided a critical opening for Cao to defeat Jefferson. Because Hurricane Gustav came ashore on Labor Day, Louisiana's primary elections were delayed. Jefferson had to make his way through a primary field in October, and then a Democratic runoff Nov. 4. That set up Saturday's race, which experts said would produce low turnout because so many black voters had already turned out in force to vote for Obama and might not return to the polls for a lawmaker awaiting federal trial.

With just 66,000 voters showing up -- almost 100,000 fewer than a month earlier -- Cao beat Jefferson by 2,000 votes, joining another Louisiana Republican, Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian American, as a high-profile minority for a party that spent the early part of this decade trying to expand its ethnic reach.

Cao said he hopes his victory will help lead to a "more inclusive" Republican Party. "I hope that I can contribute in my own way to the rebranding," he said.

Combined with John Fleming's victory in another House race in Louisiana on Saturday, and Chambliss's win last week in a Georgia runoff, Cao's triumph has become a GOP rallying point. "Republicans have been victorious in all three elections that have taken place since the presidential contest was decided over a month ago. The party remains a viable alternative," said Ken Spain, the NRCC's spokesman.

After suffering a net loss of 21 seats this fall, following the loss of 30 seats in 2006 and several special-election defeats this past spring, Republicans have been reduced to just 178 House seats. That's the weakest minority since the party entered the 1994 elections with 177 seats, when young guns like Boehner, tired of the GOP's 50-year run in the House minority, crafted an ambitious reform agenda that vaulted them into the majority.

Republicans view Cao's win as a road map back to their roots. "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," Boehner wrote in his memo. "The Cao victory is a symbol of our future."

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