A year and a half later, Cao is widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress. His district — the most Democratic seat represented by a Republican incumbent — gave President Barack Obama 75 percent of the vote in 2008 and is almost 60 percent black, according to the 2001 Census. Before Cao, the district had not elected a Republican since 1888(!).
Despite a deck stacked WAY against him, the freshman representative and first Vietnamese-American member of Congress — who is running unopposed in the Republican primary — says he’s “very optimistic” about his chances this fall.
Voters are looking for “strong, responsible leadership,” Cao said in an interview with the Fix, adding that when it comes time to vote “people will see the hard work that we’ve put into the district in the past 18 months.”
Perhaps. But rhetoric is just, well, rhetoric.
So, how could Cao possibly win in a seat this tilted against him? Here’s the case he and his campaign make:
1. Recent polling: At the top of the list is a poll released by Cao’s campaign on Monday showing the candidate leading his main Democratic rival. In the poll, which was conducted May 27 to June 2 by Verne Kennedy’s Market Research Insight and sampled 400 likely voters, Cao led the Democratic frontrunner, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, 51 percent to 26 percent. According to the poll, 54 percent of those polled viewed Cao favorably, and only 6 percent of respondents did not know enough about him to have an opinion. By contrast, Richmond was unknown to 27 percent of respondents.
(Worth noting: The survey did not test Cao against the other three Democrats who have filed to run: state Rep. Juan LaFonta (D), businessman Gary Johnson (D) and Eugene Green (D), a onetime aide to former Rep. William Jefferson (D), who was ousted by Cao in 2008. Three independent candidates have also filed to run.)
Louisiana political analyst John Maginnis said that if Cao is able to garner a quarter of the black vote and maintain his vote share among white Democrats, Richmond “will have a tough race.”
National Democrats say the poll is not a cause for concern, noting that once the Democratic candidate gets his name out in the district — and once more voters are aware of Cao’s party affiliation — the gap will close.
2. Cao’s voting record: Cao spokesperson Cheron Brylski noted that the Congressman has voted in line with Obama’s position nearly as often as the state’s lone Democratic congressman, Rep. Charlie Melancon, who represents the neighboring 3rd district. In 2009, Cao voted in line with Obama 68 percent of the time compared to 85 percent for Melancon and 26 percent for the average House Republican, according to Congressional Quarterly’s vote ratings.
But a potential stain on that voting record is Cao’s vote against the health care bill in March despite previously being the lone Republican to support it last year. Cao, who is opposed to abortion rights, opposed the March bill on the grounds that he said it would allow for federal funding of abortion.
Cao said he’s confident his health care vote won’t be an obstacle in the race.
“What I’ve been hearing on the streets is that the people, they support my moral stance,” Cao said. “They like the fact that I stand on my convictions and not being swayed because of political expediency.” He added that the majority of the district is opposed to abortion rights and that the district is “not a single-issue constituency.”
Voters “simply want strong, honest hardworking leadership, and they have been receiving that the past 18 months,” he said.
National Democrats have already begun airing robocalls in the district slamming Cao for his vote, however, and that focus looks only to intensify as the campaign goes forward.
3. The oil spill in the Gulf: Cao has sought to focus on the economic impact of the Gulf Coast oil spill — calling for a partially lifting of the federal moratorium on deep-water drilling, which was blocked in late June by a federal judge in New Orleans.
When you look at the choices America has as a country, Cao said, “not drilling in the Gulf is not an option.” The administration must approach the issue “in a way that would not devastate this industry,” he added, and “the moratorium is destroying our ability to do that.” Cao has called for oil companies to be allowed to do partial drilling, but not tap into the oil reservoir.
Despite Cao’s encouraging poll numbers, the political and demographic make-up of the district make the challenge ahead a steep one.
Cao’s victory is rightly understood as a voter reaction to the corruption of former Rep. Bill Jefferson (D), not an affirmative vote of confidence in Cao. With Jefferson sentenced to more than a decade behind bars, he won’t be the issue again — forcing Cao to stand on his own merits and record, a record Democrats will mine to cast him as out of step with the state.
Cao said that he’s confident voters will look beyond issues of race and party.
“Even though it is an African-American district, people in the district simply want someone who is willing to work hard for the people,” Cao said. “They want someone who is willing to stand up to his moral grounds, to not be swayed from his moral stance. And that’s all they want. They don’t care about race, and they don’t care about party.”