This article was originally published on Sept. 16.
As he made his way to the podium to give his health-care speech last Wednesday—a speech that would draw boos from Republican lawmakers, trigger Joe Wilson’s now-notorious outburst, and eventually be likened to Nazism by angry protesters—President Obama was able to find at least one friendly Republican face in the crowd. “I love this guy!” Obama announced to Republicans gathered nearby as he shook hands with Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA).
The president had plenty of reasons to praise the freshman representative from New Orleans. On issues large and small, Cao has been among the most White House-friendly Republican politicians in the country. There is a very real possibility that he will be the only member of his party to jump ship and support the president’s health-care plan.
“We have to be approachable to the average American family,” GOP Rep. Joseph Cao says of the Republican Party. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe our message has been that. It’s been somewhat anti-immigrant, it’s been oftentimes too pro-business and anti-family.”
Will he cop to being Obama’s favorite Republican? “I'm looking for real solutions to America's problems and my politics has never been partisan,” Cao said. In other words, he’s not running from the label.
Cao’s willingness to play ball with the White House has a lot to do with his status as the most vulnerable incumbent of any party in 2010.
Cao won his seat in December 2008 in a majority African-American district that had not elected a Republican since 1890—thanks to a serious scandal. The incumbent he defeated, William Jefferson, had been indicted for a litany of corruption charges, leading many Democrats to either stay home or cross party lines in protest. In addition, the decisive vote was not held on the same day as the presidential election—meaning Obama wasn’t the ticket to boost turnout.
House Minority Leader John Boehner distributed a memo entitled " The Future is Cao" while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell touted Cao's election in a January speech as a sign that " a revival is already taking place" for the party.
Cao, for his part, seems to at least agree that the party is in need of a new look.
“I would hope that...if the future truly is Cao, then we have to be approachable to minorities,” he said. “We have to be approachable to the average American family. We have to be approachable to the average American. Unfortunately, I don't believe our message has been that. It's been somewhat anti-immigrant, it's been oftentimes too pro-business and anti-family.”
Despite their early enthusiasm, Republican leaders seem to have largely forgotten about Cao as the party has taken a sharp turn to the right, waging all-out partisan warfare over health care and rising up in opposition to Hispanic Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—in ways that didn’t help the pro-minority message. Despite his criticisms of the party, Cao has remained upbeat about the GOP. He doesn’t buy into the notion that the Republican brand has become defined by its more extreme element—or that its leadership was undermining health-care reform to score political points.
“I think it’s simply media hype,” Cao said. “At the end of the day I can’t think of one congressman that will obstruct this whole process simply for the cause of obstructing it.”
Nonetheless, there’s an undeniable tension between Cao's Republican loyalties and his district’s Democratic leanings—which makes him an unpredictable vote. He backed an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, voted for new hate-crime legislation, and says he would have supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program had he been in office when it came to a vote. But he opposed Obama's signature legislation, the stimulus package, a vote that could come back to haunt him in 2010.
The politics of the health-care debate are tricky for him. Cao says he is “leaning toward supporting the [administration’s] bill,” though he hopes it will include stronger language prohibiting funds from going to abortion and abandon an employer mandate to provide health care.
He’s also been careful to put distance between himself and his party’s conservative wing at some key moments. This month, he took to the House floor to defend Obama's speech to schoolchildren after widespread hysteria from conservative media figures and politicians alike who claimed the event was socialist “indoctrination.”
“I was shocked and I believe that it was uncalled for,” Cao said of the protests. “The office of the president must have the respect of not only members of Congress, but of the people.”
Hoping to win over his African-American constituents, Cao has sought membership in the Congressional Black Caucus. But like other non-black members who have attempted to join, he's yet to be accepted.
“They said I'm always welcome to join the Black Caucus but obviously there might be some meetings where I cannot attend. But I have not made my decision whether or not to continue the push to be a member,” he said.
GOP leaders have exerted pressure on him to toe the party line, but ultimately they understand his unique situation, Cao said. Party independence is the key to the Cao “brand”—an asset he hopes will propel him to another surprise victory next November. He believes his “chances are very good,” despite being panned by political analysts. But the competition is already lining up: State Democratic Reps. Cedric Richmond and Juan LaFonta have announced plans to seek the seat.
“I believe that the people of the district see me as a strong leader, a leader that they can trust,” Cao told The Daily Beast. “I believe that people are coming around from seeing me as simply just another Republican.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.