So how did Anh “Joseph” Cao, little-known Republican immigration attorney, defeat Democratic Congressman William Jefferson to become the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress?
Step one, it helps to have your opponent be indicted, but then again, this isn’t as rare as one might hope in modern politics. But when it’s enough to get the local press declaring your opponent to be “an embarrassment to the community“, it’s worse than usual.
Step two, it helps, when you are running against an African-American incumbent in a district that is majority African-American and two-thirds Democrat, to ensure that your special election is held one month after the rest of the country because of an approaching hurricane. This way, you avoid running on a day when Obama is at the top of the ticket: “Ironically, had Gustav not postponed the voting schedule one month, the general election would have been held the same ballot as last month’s presidential election, when high turnout among African-American voters likely would have carried Jefferson to a 10th term.”
(Coupled with Georgia, this is further evidence that Election Day 2008 saw a massive “Obama effect” that may not return until Election Day 2012, presuming the president-elect runs for reelection.)
Step three, the bar for victory is lower on a day with astonishingly low turnout. About 65,000 voted in the Second Congressional District’s special election. By comparison, in the neighboring First District, 288,007 voted on Election Day.
Step four, it helps to have a fascinating life story. (I wonder if some of us on the right underestimated how many relatively apolitical voters were fascinated by Obama’s story of his improbable journey from Hawaii to Indonesia to Chicago to Harvard to the heights of American politics.) Note these little details in the coverage of Cao’s victory:
Cao, who came to the United States when he was 8, holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Baylor University and a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University. After a stint as a Catholic seminarian, he earned a law degree from Loyola University in 2000.
Married with two daughters, he now runs a law practice in Venetian Isles specializing in immigration
Cao took an interest in local politics after his home and office were swamped during Hurricane Katrina…
At Cao’s side was his wheelchair-bound father, who spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp during that country’s civil war. In his closing, Cao offered thanks to the local immigrant community, and he made a special plea for peace in the country of his birth.”
“I’d like to thank my Vietnamese community,” he said, “and I’d like to encourage young Vietnamese in this country to work peacefully for a free and democratic Vietnam.”
…Cao, on upon his victory: “Never in my life did I think I could be a future congressman,” he said. “The American dream is well and alive.”
Warms the heart, no? As 2008 draws to a close, Republicans have found their own small dose of hope and change.
UPDATE: Patrick Ruffini: “In crafting our 435 district strategy, the lesson is that we don’t need to run risk-averse politicians in longshot seats. We need to run everyday heroes like Cao. We need to identify people outside politics who’ve done things in the community and who can capitalize on the incumbents’ mistakes. Every district has a Joseph Cao.”