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The Cheshire Cat



With the right amount of cash and the right kind of viral marketing — direct mail, email and phone banking — Cao can quietly spread the word that anti-Jefferson voters have one last chance to take him out.

Voters in Louisiana's Second Congressional District will get one last shot at removing Bill Jefferson from office next Saturday, Dec. 6, when Jefferson faces three opponents in a hurricane-delayed general election. The 18-year incumbent, despite 16 felony charges pending against him in northern Virginia, remains a heavy favorite.

Republicans, anxious for a victory after their national spanking on Nov. 4, are pinning their hopes on Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Vietnamese-American immigration lawyer and former Jesuit seminarian. Others in the race are Green Party candidate Malik Rahim and Libertarian Gregory Kahn.

On paper, the numbers favor Jefferson overwhelmingly. The district is more than 66 percent Democratic and barely 11 percent Republican. Independents and "other party" voters outnumber Republicans by more than two-to-one.

Jefferson's real strength rests in the racial breakdowns: almost 62 percent of the registered voters in the Second District are African American; some 30.5 percent are white; the rest are classified as "other."

So why are Republicans even bothering with this one?

Because Dec. 6 is not going to be Barack Obama Day, as Nov. 4 was. If voter turnout is low next Saturday, Cao may have an outside chance to pull off an upset. It won't be easy, but here's why Cao's supporters believe he has a shot:

On Nov. 4, Jefferson swamped white challenger Helena Moreno in the Democratic runoff by a margin of nearly 57 percent to 43 percent, thanks in large measure to the huge black voter turnout for Obama. No one expects voter turnout next Saturday to be anywhere near what it was on Nov. 4. In fact, history tells us that turnout on Dec. 6 could be in the teens, maybe even the low teens.

History also tells us that white voters will probably turn out in significantly higher percentages than black voters in an "off" election such as this one. The only other item on the ballot locally is a special election in state Senate District 3, most of which lies in Jefferson's congressional district. In that contest, state Rep. J. P. Morrell faces developer Shawn Barney to succeed former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who resigned after pleading guilty to federal money laundering charges.

Two other factors will affect turnout: post-Katrina voter displacement, which is more pronounced in black precincts; and the fact that the district has more than 41,000 registered Republicans who have not yet had a chance to vote against Jefferson this election season. This year marks the first time since 1977 that Louisiana has held separate party primaries in federal elections. Republicans thus have been frozen out of the mix when it comes to Dollar Bill — until now.

The question for the GOP is whether turnout next Saturday will produce a universe of voters that could favor Cao. Behind the scenes, local Republicans are working furiously to raise enough money to mount a campaign targeting Republicans and "other party" voters of all races as well as disaffected white Democrats. With the right amount of cash and the right kind of viral marketing — direct mail, email and phone banking — Cao can quietly spread the word that anti-Jefferson voters have one last chance to take him out.

Of course, the congressman won't exactly be relaxing between now and then. For starters, he's delighted to see the special election in state Senate District 3. Word has it he encouraged Barney to stay in that contest even though Morrell is a decided favorite. Any turnout boost in black precincts helps Jefferson, who got a reprieve, for now, from his scheduled Dec. 2 trial date. He also has held on to his support among black clergy while keeping his black former challengers from coming out against him. Most of those challengers figure Jefferson for a goner in the next few months, so they'd just as soon see him re-elected. They're hoping for a do-over next year.

Then again, that's what Shepherd figured in 2006. Now he's the one headed to jail, while New Orleans' answer to the Cheshire Cat appears headed back to Congress.

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