Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Political Upset of the Decade

Joseph Cao: One of the new faces of the GOP

Two special congressional elections were held in Louisiana yesterday. Republican physician John Fleming narrowly beat popular former Democratic attorney Paul Carmouche by 300 votes, holding this seat for the GOP. But LA-2 was the scene of the most shocking upset of the night, astounding all political pundits and observers. This New Orleans based district takes in only two parishes (counties) in Louisiana—Orleans and Jefferson—and due to its demographics (an urban, majority black district), it has long been the most Democratic district in the state. That changed Saturday in a historic moment when New Orleans voters voted out disgraced and indicted Congressman William Jefferson and elected Republican attorney Joseph Cao to congress, 50 to 47 percent. Some quick facts on this historic win:

  • Cao becomes the first Republican to represent this New Orleans-based district since 1891—a span of more than 100 years
  • Cao becomes the first Republican to represent a majority African-American (60 percent black) congressional district in America
  • Cao becomes the first Republican to represent a U.S. congressional district with a 28 point Democratic lean (Obama won this district with 75 percent of the vote)
  • Cao becomes the first Vietnamese-American to serve in congress and he comes from the party of real diversity, the Republican Party

Now, naysayers will dismiss and downplay the results, claiming this was a vote against Jefferson, not a vote for Cao, and that Jefferson’s federal indictment and legal troubles doomed his re-election bid, combined with low turnout for a special election originally postponed due to Hurrican Gustav. All of those factors are valid reasons for explaining Jefferson’s loss, but those factors alone do not explain Cao’s win. Jefferson was under federal indictment in 2006 and still won re-election convincingly. The difference this year? The Republicans recruited an inspiring reformer who represented the growing diversity of his district, someone with an intriguing life story (Cao arrived in the U.S. as child from Saigon in the aftermath of Vietnam War as his family sought to escape communism), someone well-connected with his community, with a history of service and volunteer commitment to the city of New Orleans. Cao built coalitions that included former Democratic candidates and independents, knocked on more doors and held more community forums than any Republican challenger in the past. In addition, his efforts were complemented by the NRCC and Louisiana Republican Party, which waged an aggressive campaign against Jefferson and micro-targeted certain wards in New Orleans while blanketing the suburbs with TV, radio, and print ads. The result? Jefferson only very narrowly won Orleans county (New Orleans), losing many of that city’s wards while Cao won suburban Jefferson County, beating Jefferson overall by 3 percent.

Jefferson’s ethical and legal lapses were not enough to cost him re-election in a district with a 28 point Democratic edge—the incredible effort of the Republican Party in fielding a top-tier candidate and supporting him in every way possible with the full heft and resources of the national, state, and local party apparatuses should and will provide a blueprint for how Republicans can win even in the bluest of districts. Let’s not forget that Republican Jim Ogonowski came within 5 points of knocking off Paul Tsongas' wife in Massachusetts in 2007. With the right message and the right candidates, the GOP can win again everywhere, becoming a dominant party in the northeast again and refusing to cede any district to the Democrats.

These two Republican victories in Louisiana, combined with Saxby Chambliss’ double-digit win in Georgia last week are evidence that the Republican party is not dead and that conservatism is still alive and well. Since Obama’s victory, the Republicans are 3-3 in special congressional elections, and with the right message and right candidates, the party can make huge gains in 2010. That is, if it takes anything from these special elections and creates an organizational framework going into 2010.

As for Louisiana, the fact that the most liberal and Democratic district of the state has elected a conservative Republican further underscores the state’s sharp turn to the right in the last decade. Just six years ago, a majority of Louisiana’s congressional delegation was Democratic—now only one of its 7 congressional seats is held by a Democrat (and that seat, held by Charles Melancon, was formerly held by Republican Billy Tauzin, and it is expected to switch back to Republican control in 2010 or 2012, giving Louisiana complete GOP control of its delegation). Louisiana also has a GOP governor and senator, and was one of only a few states to give John McCain a greater share of its vote in this year’s presidential election than George W. Bush in 2004.


Anonymous said...

Its such a shame the GOP ran a democrat, after 8 months, besides the freezer full of cash, the voting records are nearly identical.

Anonymous said...

And again, Cao votes with Pelosi