He came into the crowded Republican primary race in Northern Virginia with little name recognition and no experience in public office or in campaigns.
Cao, a Vietnamese refugee who went on to serve 25 years as a commissioned Navy officer, leveraged a personal story that many voters said they found compelling as he maximized outreach in minority communities and hit on some of the same themes — such as fighting “indoctrination” in education — that carried Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to victory last year. About 44 percent of the voting-age people in the district are minorities, including 17 percent who are Asian American.
“We came to this country with nothing,” Cao said in an interview Sunday. “We clawed our way up and we made it work, and we harnessed all the opportunities this country gave us, and we didn’t take any handouts. That resonates with all the people in this district, especially all the immigrants and minorities. And all hard-working Americans, not just minorities.”
In a party-run firehouse primary that employed ranked-choice voting, Cao came away with roughly 53 percent of the vote to Lawson’s roughly 34 percent. About 15,000 Republicans voted.
Cao’s victory sets up an intriguing matchup between a political novice with clear grass-roots appeal in conservative circles and Wexton, a former Loudoun County prosecutor and state senator who flipped the district blue in 2018 by a double-digit margin. Cao’s nomination aligns with the Virginia GOP’s push to elevate more diverse slates of candidates to expand the party tent — such as Attorney General Jason S. Miyares and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears — and that could end up as an asset for Republicans in what will be a difficult attempt to oust Wexton in the blue district.
Although President Biden won the 10th as its drawn now by 18 percentage points in 2020, Republicans grew hopeful that flipping the seat red could be within reach after Youngkin made considerable headway in the district in his gubernatorial race, losing the redistricted 10th by less than two points. His success encouraged national Republicans to target Wexton, one of three Virginia congresswomen they hope to take down in a midterm election year expected to be a referendum on Democratic power. Millions of dollars probably will be poured into ads and voter outreach in the coming months by outside groups and the two campaigns.
But as Cao’s win illustrated, money isn’t always everything — even in a region such as Northern Virginia, one of the most expensive media markets in the nation where candidates must jockey for attention to get their message to voters. And as he prepares to take on Wexton, Cao argued that his win proved political experience isn’t everything, either: “Look at yesterday’s primaries: They didn’t want a political veteran; they wanted a fresh voice,” he said Sunday.
Lawson had raised more than $920,000 — more than twice what Cao raised — and had high-profile backing from Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the third-ranking Republican in the House, and several other prominent right-wing activists.
Lawson had framed herself as a premier fighter against “woke” racial equity policies. But Lawson also faced some attacks from the right wing over a vote she took in 2020 — a unanimous bipartisan vote — to “develop a framework for becoming a more inclusive and equitable Prince William County.”
David Ramadan, a former Republican state legislator who represented parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties, recalled seeing attacks over the vote proliferate in right-wing circles online. That was “amazing” considering Lawson had a reputation as a staunch conservative, he said.
“Jeanine Lawson started as the favorite candidate, and she had pretty much the endorsements of the Who’s Who of traditional conservative leaders and activists, from Morton Blackwell to Ken Cuccinelli,” said Ramadan, an instructor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. “She also had a record as a public official — and that record was not far-right enough for the MAGA wing of the party.”
Ramadan, noting Loudoun County’s sizable population of South Asian Americans and immigrants, suggested that Cao probably succeeded with a resonant immigrant story and outreach to the minority community — but also in part because he had no record that the Republican base could critique. And he capitalized on issues that have energized those voters, such as election integrity and fighting against education policies involving racial equity, Ramadan said.
Cao was born in Vietnam and fled the country with his family shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975. In an interview last week, he recalled his mother sewing money into the hems of his and his siblings’ clothes, in case they were separated. And as he watched the fall of Kabul in August, seeing Afghan mothers hand their babies to U.S. Marines, Cao said the deadly withdrawal reminded him of his family’s experience. Soon after, he decided to run for Congress.
A father of five whose children are home-schooled, Cao hammered on education throughout his campaign. He advocated for school choice and sought to appeal to conservative parents who had become active at school board meetings to oppose “critical race theory” and racial equity and diversity policies.
Cao, who graduated from the district’s elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, had been vocal in his opposition to the Fairfax County school district’s changes to the school’s admissions process. The district eliminated a notoriously challenging entrance exam and made other changes in an effort to boost student diversity. But Cao and parents with the Coalition for TJ — who filed a lawsuit and fought the case to the Supreme Court — argued the changes lowered standards and discriminated against Asian Americans.
Cao’s positions on education issues appeared to excite Republican parents out at the polls Saturday.
Candice van Schaick, 44, said she home-schools some of her eight children, who range from toddlers to a 19-year-old college student — just like Cao, a shared experience that prompted her to rank him first.
“He seems to share a lot of the same values that I have,” said van Schaick, who also graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School. “To be a father, a businessman, to have served in the military and to then be pursuing a life with his family that seems consistent with the values we’re raising our kids with.”
Tim Vermilion, a 49-year-old engineer who ranked candidate Dave Beckwith, Lawson and Cao in his top three, said Saturday that he had to think about who could pull the most votes in November.
Vermilion said he has been feeling “Trump fatigue.” A candidate with Cao’s background might appeal more to independent voters, he added, and “comes at immigration issues with a different perspective.”
Cao has said that he does not want to discuss any changes to the immigration system or paths to citizenship until the border is secured. He also has appealed to religious conservatives on issues such as abortion, saying he supports overturning Roe v. Wade and believes abortion policy is best left to states.
J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said in a recent interview that abortion could be a wild-card factor in a blue district like the 10th and that it could be one issue motivating Democrats to come out to the polls.
“Republicans can’t be seen as too conservative on social issues,” Coleman said. “And Roe would be one of those things that would not drastically change things but maybe help with Democrats’ margin.”
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement Sunday that Virginia voters will “reject Hung Cao’s toxic politics” and called Northern Virginia “Wexton country.”
In a statement, Wexton focused on her work in Congress backing coronavirus relief and the infrastructure bill, supporting victims of domestic violence and holding “the Chinese government accountable for their human rights atrocities.” Wexton sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee as well as the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which monitors China’s human rights abuses of the Uyghurs and other religious minorities; the district is home to a large population of Uyghur refugees.
“I look forward to continuing to travel around the new 10th District to meet with voters, listen to the needs of families, and speak to how crucial it is to defend this seat,” Wexton said.
Teo Armus contributed to this report.