By Kevin McGill
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — “The Future is Cao” was the widely reported subject line of a memo U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner issued the day after Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao achieved an upset victory over Democrat William Jefferson last December.
The appropriate line would have read, “What is Cao’s future?”
Even then, there were serious doubts he could repeat his 2008 victory in the heavily Democratic 2nd Congressional District. The scenario involved an indictment-crippled incumbent in a low-turnout, hurricane-delayed election. That’s not likely to play out again in 2010.
Cao was making headlines again last week because he was the only Republican voting for the Democrat-pushed health care bill. The vote probably endeared him to some of his constituents but it really doesn’t make his future any clearer.
Republicans were clearly unhappy that Cao gave credibility to the argument that the health care bill was a bipartisan effort.
When pressed during an interview in New Orleans, House Republican whip Eric Cantor said Cao would not face retaliation in the House. But some people apparently had retaliation in mind. Cao said some contributors canceled fundraisers or asked for donation refunds after the vote.
Louisiana Democrats, meanwhile, had nothing good to say. The state party spokesman declined comment and one of Cao’s likely challengers essentially said the vote was not enough to make up for past votes — like the one he cast against President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package.
Such votes have built Cao’s reputation for independence and conscientiousness. That reputation should be a big plus, especially when combined with Cao’s compelling life story. He is an immigrant who fled Saigon as a child when it was falling to the communists. He went on to earn physics, philosophy, and law degrees. A former seminarian, he earned a reputation as an effective activist in his small but thriving Vietnamese community in eastern New Orleans — especially after Hurricane Katrina. His election made him the nation’s first Vietnamese American congressman.
Perhaps the only issue on which Cao might be considered doctrinaire is abortion — his opposition to it is what led him to join the Republican Party. Otherwise, his positions are not always predictable and he has frequently decried Washington partisanship.
Is there room anywhere in politics for someone who gives more than lip service to bipartisanship?
Sometimes. Democrat Mary Landrieu has been able to hold on to her U.S. Senate seat through two re-election campaigns.
But racial and party politics will likely play a bigger role in District 2, which is 60 percent black and 66 percent Democratic.
Black voter turnout was low in Cao’s win last December. Obama was not at the top of the ballot to boost black turnout and, in a state that had only recently returned to the party primary system, many voters might have thought Jefferson had already won, owing to the hoopla that surrounded his Democratic primary runoff victory a month earlier.
Black voters will likely have a black candidate to rally around next year. And, as University of New Orleans political science professor Ed Chervenak said, “At the congressional level, party is a good predictor of the vote.”
Cao’s health care votes — the recent one and one he will cast when and if the issue returns after Senate action — may help him with Democrats. The question is whether the party that worked so hard to get him elected last year will work as hard for him next year. ♦
Kevin McGill covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press. He is based in New Orleans.