Obama's GOP Buddy in Peril

Joseph Cao was hailed by the right for winning a Democratic district. Then he became Obama’s favorite Republican. His next role, if he’s not careful: one-term congressman.

10.29.10 12:00 AM ET

Joseph Cao was hailed by the right for winning a Democratic district. Then he became Obama’s favorite Republican. His next role, if he’s not careful: one-term congressman. Plus, midterm predictions from the Election Oracle.

Obama's favorite Republican is on the ropes.

Joseph Cao, the GOP House freshman from New Orleans who bumped off scandal-tainted incumbent Democrat William Jefferson and gave his party a precious pick-up deep in safe Democratic territory, is now fighting for his life—abandoned on the right by conservatives who once hailed him as their hero, and on the left from liberals who enjoyed his partnership with the president on select issues, but found his overall record unsupportable. 

Cao's aides say their internal polls show the race a dead heat, while his Democratic opponent Cedric Richmond's publicly released polling indicates double-digit leads for the challenger.

The Daily Beast’s Election Oracle gives Richmond an 80 percent chance of unseating the Republican incumbent.

That makes Cao a rare Republican in trouble in what is shaping up to be a GOP tsunami. But then, nothing about his career has been by the book.

A Vietnamese-American immigration lawyer, Cao won his seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic and African-American district thanks to a rare and fortuitous combination of circumstances: n addition to facing the corrupt Jefferson, Hurricane Gustav postponed the general election a month, leaving Cao to win a low-turnout affair in which Democratic votes were split among third-party candidates as well.

Once in office, Cao developed—indeed, invited—a reputation as "Obama's favorite Republican" for his unusually cordial relationship with the White House. He broke with the GOP on some key issues—becoming the only Republican lawmaker to vote for the House's first health-care bill, and siding with Democrats' efforts to formally rebuke Texas Republican Joe Wilson for his "You lie!" outburst. But Cao parted ways with the president plenty, voting against the stimulus, the final health-care legislation, and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. That has given his Democratic rival plenty of ammunition to use against him.

"This is about voting the will of the district," Richmond, a state representative, told The Daily Beast. "He voted against all of these bills because his party's leaders wanted unanimous opposition.”

“I think the president is saying, ‘he’s a nice guy,’” Richmond said of Obama’s thinking. “But he’s not a guy I can depend on when I need a vote for the change I was elected to enact.”

Meanwhile, Obama didn’t let his past fondness for Cao interfere with his desire to elect a Democrat. The president personally recorded a TV spot on Richmond’s behalf. 

"I think the president is saying, ‘he's a nice guy,’" Richmond said of Obama’s thinking. "’But he's not a guy I can depend on when I need a vote for the change I was elected to enact.’"

The 11 Hottest Midterm Races to WatchMost Republican incumbents are cashing in on national disenchantment with the direction in which Obama is leading the country. But Cao is eschewing national themes for local politics, highlighting his work to bring federal funds to New Orleans to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. He's also burnished his bipartisan credentials with endorsements from a handful of local Democratic politicians.

"When he brings in that money for the district, it doesn't just help Democrats, Republicans, or independents," Cao spokesman Devin Johnson said. "His accomplishments don't discriminate by party and neither do we."

As Election Day draws near, the almost pathologically sunny Cao has decided to go negative with a series of increasing brutal attacks on his opponent. His campaign accuses Richmond of corruption, citing news reports that the Democrat funneled $588,000 to a nonprofit whose director, Irma Dixon, was charged with embezzlment. Cao's aides say Dixon was Richmond's girlfriend and that he surely knew what was going on. But Richmond has not confirmed or denied the relationship and his campaign insists he had no connection to the crime at all.  

"When the president came out and endorsed Richmond, that really undercut Cao's rationale for holding on to the seat," Ed Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans, said. "Cao had no choice but to attack Richmond's character and that’s what we've been seeing recently."

The campaign has become almost unbearably bitter in its final days as a result. Even personal tragedies have become grist for partisan sniping. After Cao's father, My Quang Cao, died this week, Richmond announced he was suspending his campaign out of respect. Cao's aides reacted furiously, condemning the move as an exploitive stunt masquerading as sympathy in order to cut off debate in the campaign's final days. The campaign was particularly upset that they had not been given notice of the move.  

"We literally found out about it through the media," Johnson said. "It just reeks of insincerity."

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for