Hours after the last House race of ’08 — and easily that with the most unexpected outcome — the Republican who unseated nine-term Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) is fast becoming a nationwide political sensation. Not only is Rep-elect Anh “Joseph” Cao the first-ever Vietnamese-American to be elected to Congress, but the 41-year-old conservative is also the first Republican since 1932 to represent a House district with a majority of African-American voters.
A strong case could be made that Republicans will stop talking about “Joe the Plumber,” and start talking about their newest star, “Joseph the Congressman.”
“We sent an extremely positive message — about honesty in government and trying to cut taxes — and the people of the Second District were ready for change,” an exhausted-but-eloquent Cao told me on the evening after scoring what could easily be called the upset of the year.
Indeed, at the close of an election year that could only be called abysmal for Republicans, the GOP got an early Christmas gift from Louisiana. With Hurricane Gustav forcing primaries to be delayed until October and the run-offs for party nominees held on November 4th, the last two races of the year were held in the Pelican State Saturday. By 356 votes out of more than 93,000 cast, physician and Republican John Fleming clung to the Shreveport-seat of retiring Rep. Jim McCrery (R.-La.) over Democrat and District Attorney Paul Carmouche.
But the big news was in the 2nd District (New Orleans), where Jefferson had earlier won re-nomination in spite of his indictment on bribery and corruption charges. In a district where two thirds of the voters are Democrats and 62% are African Americans, his re-election on Saturday was expected to be a cinch.
But, by a margin of 49.5% to 47%, Jefferson was unseated by Cao, an attorney who fled Vietnam at the age of eight with his mother and four siblings following the Communist takeover of Saigon.
Between interviews with the New York Times, CNN, and BBC, the congressman-elect spoke to me about how it happened.
“It’s very true that the turnout was small,” Cao said, noting that about 17% of eligible voters turned out and that the turnout in some of Jefferson’s most reliable precincts was down to 5%. “We concentrated very hard on specific precincts that we could count on, doing mail-outs and calls to sympathetic voters.”
But the former college instructor quickly added that “quite a lot of voters were fed up [with the corruption charges surrounding Jefferson]. Two-and-a-half weeks before the election, a poll was conducted that showed us running ten points ahead.” Cao also mentioned that former TV newscaster Helena Moreno, who had been Jefferson’s leading Democratic primary opponent, was featured in robocalls urging her supporters to back the Republican hopeful.
Aside from the issue of corruption and the argument that his defeat of Jefferson would “make us proud again,” Cao told me his strong anti-tax stand was a big help to him. In his words, “Integrity and taxes were basically it. I said I would try to cut taxes — the personal income tax, capital gains and estate taxes. “ He also opposed greater federal involvement in health care (“I differ strongly with President-elect Obama on this”) and called for expanding the community-based health care center in New Orleans, which is run primarily with local and private funds.
Cao also described himself as “strongly pro-life” and volunteered that “I don’t agree with any exceptions [to the right to life].”
Any conversation with the Vietnamese immigrant who is headed for Congress inevitably turns to the issue of immigration. Cao believes that “the Republican Party hurt itself with so much of the rhetoric about illegal immigrants.” But he also believes this will change, “with our Indian-American governor here [Republican Bobby Jindal], with a Vietnamese-American in Congress, and then the Republican Party will eventually expand into electing others from different ethnic groups.”
Clearly, Cao’s election could be called a fluke and, given the overwhelmingly Democratic nature of the 2nd District, he could easily lose to a corruption-free Democrat in 2010. But for now, Joseph is a star and one that the national Republican Party and media will surely pay a lot of attention to.