Targeted Louisiana Republican shrugs off lack of party help in election fight

Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) says he’s not concerned the House Republican campaign committee has not yet moved to reserve TV airtime in his district.

Campaign experts rank Cao as the most vulnerable House Republican incumbent as he fights for a second term representing a majority African-American district that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in 2008.

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The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) recently indicated it will reserve ad time in 41 districts, all but one controlled by Democrats. The one GOP-held district is now represented by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is running for the Senate.

Cao told The Hill this week that he’s unfazed.

“I’m not concerned at all whether or not the NRCC decides to jump into the race or not. That’s not my focus. My focus has always been to serve the needs of my people and to keep on doing the good things I do. And at the end of the day, I think they will see the good things that we do and will reelect me, whether or not the NRCC is there or not,” Cao said.

The lower chamber’s only Vietnam-born lawmaker was on Capitol Hill this week for a rare August hearing on government abuse of Catholics in his native country.

His brief break from the campaign trail came as Democrats in his state prepare for an Aug. 28 primary. Cao is running unopposed on the GOP side.

Four Democrats are running in Louisiana’s 2nd district primary. If no one fails to win a clear majority of 50 percent plus one, there would be a runoff for the top two candidates in early October.

Recently, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) took the unusual step of endorsing primary contender Cedric Richmond, a favorite of Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), among other big-name statewide party officials.

Democrats view the race as one of few opportunities that they have to unseat a sitting Republican in November, because 75 percent of the district voted for President Obama in 2008. Cao barely won his race with 50 percent of the vote against then-indicted Democratic incumbent Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).

According to a recent Census survey, the district is composed of nearly 60 percent African-American voters. The four Democrats vying to face Cao are African-American.

Cao’s strategy is to play up his maverick qualities, such as his friendly relationship with Obama, his disregard for a GOP-wide earmark moratorium and hiring Democrats on his campaign staff.

“Half of my team are Democrats,” Cao said.

Asked if he wants the NRCC to play a more visible role in his race, the soft-spoken Republican said, “The laws allow the NRCC to be involved, whether we want them or not, so my issue is not whether or not the NRCC will be involved, my main focus is what am I doing to serve my people for the next two months.”

He added, “Money’s not everything in campaigns.”

Cao has raised a great deal of money, especially when compared with his fundraising in 2008. But he has also spent a majority of it as well.

As of Aug. 8, Cao had little more than $300,000 cash on hand, out of nearly $1.5 million that he has raised thus far in the 2008 cycle.

He has more cash on hand than the Democrats in the race, the closest of whom, Richmond, has $166,376 in the bank, according to opensecrets.org.

Cao is one of nine sitting GOP lawmakers participating in the NRCC’s incumbent retention program called the “Patriot Program.”

A GOP campaign operative pointed out that the NRCC had not purchased, or reserved, advanced TV ad time for those vulnerable House Republicans yet either; indicating the party would be doing so in the near future.

“We have been working closely with Congressman Cao through the Patriot Program and look forward to continuing to help him as he develops a winning campaign,” NRCC regional spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said.

The 41-year old lawmaker remains a favorite among his GOP colleagues, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), NRCC Chairman Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) and veteran Rep. Don Young (Alaska), who have lauded Cao’s work ethic and sense of humor.

After Cao’s stunning win over Jefferson in 2008, Boehner released a memo titled, “The future is Cao.” The memo suggested that highlighting ethics issues would help Republicans win back their majority in the House. Nearly two years later, Republicans — helped by the ethics controversies of Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) — say they have a chance of winning control of the lower chamber this fall.

Cao has bucked his party leadership on major pieces of legislation, including on climate change and the financial regulatory reform bills.

He voted for the House’s version of the healthcare bill last year, but opposed the final law in March over concerns that it would allow funding for abortions.

The lawmaker recently was given an award as the “Most Independent Member” of the 111th Congress — a distinction bestowed on him by his fellow handful of freshman GOP House members.

“It's wonderful to be recognized as a public servant who puts his constituents ahead of politics — the people ahead of the party. As your Representative, I am committed to serving your interests, not special interests in Washington or anywhere else,” Cao noted in the constituent-directed newsletter.