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The Future is Cao

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It's ironic, to say the least, that national Republicans are falling all over themselves to fawn over Congressman-elect Anh "Joseph" Cao. After all, the national GOP did almost nothing to help the mild-mannered Cao pull off the upset of the year against 18-year Democratic incumbent Bill Jefferson. Now the Republican mullahs are all elbowing one another to suck up to him.

Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader, called Cao "the future of the Republican Party."

Boehner might want to reconsider that label in view of the difficulty Cao will likely have holding on to his seat in 2010. Does the GOP really want to proclaim its future has a two-year lease on political life?

I don't mean to take anything away from the enormity of Cao's win or the Herculean effort he and his supporters put forth. What they accomplished was truly historic.

But it's not likely to be repeated, given the demographics of the Second Congressional District and the likelihood of a more representative turnout in 2010 — when the recently scandalized U.S. Sen. David Vitter will be up for re-election at the same time.

Another irony in all the "future of the party" spin is Cao's soft-spoken political style. One almost has to strain to hear this humble man speak. If he's going to be the future of the party, he's either going to have to get a megaphone or the party is going to have to seriously alter its bellicose rhetoric. I vote for the latter.

It will be interesting to see how Cao adapts to the ways of Washington — and how long the national party stays in love with him. While he embraces the GOP position on abortion, his experience as an immigration attorney gives him a perspective not commonly found among conservatives. I wonder if we'll see other examples of Cao not following the party line.

During Cao's campaign against Jefferson, the national GOP snubbed him, but his fledgling campaign took on mythical proportions after Jefferson won the Democratic nomination. Former New Orleans City Councilman Bryan Wagner, the first Republican to sit on the council since Reconstruction, spearheaded Cao's campaign and successfully wooed disaffected Democrats into Cao's fold. Wagner also convinced local Republicans that Cao had a real shot.

Cao's background as a Jesuit seminarian and attorney gave him a solid résumé. His quiet, humble campaign style — which normally would have marginalized him from the get-go — became an asset, particularly with Jefferson all but disappearing from the mainstream in order to avoid reporters' questions about his impending criminal trial in northern Virginia. Political observer John McGinnis accurately described the Cao campaign as a "civic movement." In the end, it didn't matter that as many people were voting against Jefferson as for Cao. The bottom line was the same.

I just wonder if the national party will stick with Cao in two years, when the odds are really stacked against him.

Some speculate there may be a move at the state level to redraw the district boundaries to give Cao a fighting chance in 2010. Don't bet on it. Numbers from the next census won't be out by the time Cao has to qualify — and any new district lines will have to be approved by President Barack Obama's Justice Department, thanks to the Voting Rights Act. Beating Bill Jefferson was one thing; asking President Obama to take away Louisiana's only black district is not even thinkable.

Cao deserves all the accolades that come his way for upending Dollar Bill. He already has earned a place in history for becoming the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress — and for bringing down one of the most venal political scoundrels ever to disgrace Louisiana.

But those accomplishments pale in comparison to what it will take to win re-election against what will no doubt be a much more palatable Democrat in 2010 — when turnout very likely will reflect the district's 62 percent African-American voter registration.

For now, though, the future is Cao.


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