GOP lets vulnerable incumbent lawmaker fend for himself

Rep. Joseph Cao stood with his Republican leaders in opposing the stimulus package and healthcare reform, but the GOP’s campaign committee has not spent a dime to save the targeted Louisiana freshman.

After Cao defeated ethics-scarred Rep. William Jefferson (D) in 2008, House GOP leader John Boehner (Ohio) crowed about the win. In a widely circulated memo titled “The Future is Cao,” Boehner extolled the way the GOP candidate defied the odds to win a district that President Obama won with 75 percent of the vote.

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While the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress was a major talking point for Republicans then, he’s now being treated like yesterday’s news.

Cao’s political future looks bleak as he runs for reelection, in part because the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has not purchased TV airtime in the district.

A GOP leadership source told The Hill that “when Boehner said ‘The Future is Cao,’ his point was that Republicans in the next Congress would defy expectations and do the unthinkable, as Cao did. He was not saying literally that Cao is the future of the Republican Party.”

Though Cao shrugged off the lack of NRCC independent expenditure help this summer, his campaign spokesman, Devin Johnson, told The Hill that Cao would welcome financial support from the NRCC.

“Whether or not they decide to help us out is really out of our control — we welcome support from Republicans and Democrats alike. We’re not going to say no to anyone,” Johnson said.

Some political observers contend that spending money on Cao would be a waste of resources, especially with control of the House at stake.

The vulnerable incumbent has played up his close relationship with Obama and support he has received from key African-American Democrats in New Orleans, who have endorsed him over Democratic candidate Cedric Richmond, who is black.

Obama, who invited Cao to the White House to watch the Saints play in the Super Bowl earlier this year, recently endorsed Richmond. Cao’s district is 60 percent African-American, according to the latest Census data.

Cao has a cash-on-hand advantage over Richmond. As of Sept. 30, Cao had $425,028 on hand, compared to Richmond’s $182,945.

Outside independent groups, including labor unions and abortion-rights organizations, have stepped up their support for Richmond in the race. Key Democratic House leaders, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), are scheduled to hold a fundraiser for Richmond on Wednesday in the Big Easy.

Cao touts tough votes he has taken against his own party on several key issues, including healthcare, climate change and financial regulation. Cao voted against the final healthcare overhaul package.

House Republicans proudly noted that their entire conference was united on the final stimulus and healthcare bills. Many political observers were surprised that Cao rejected both measures, which were Obama’s signature items of the 111th Congress.

Cao said he was “hurt” when Obama cut an ad to endorse Richmond.

Shortly after that ad aired, and Richmond picked up the endorsement of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), political handicapper Charlie Cook moved Cao’s race from the Republican “toss-up” column to “leans Democrat.”

During a television debate with Richmond earlier this week, Cao refused to say whom he would support for Speaker of the House if he were to win his election this year.

Asked if he would support Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Boehner, Cao responded, “I will weigh those names, if those are the two names, and I will weigh them equally like I weigh other issues."

Richmond called Cao’s response disingenuous.

Boehner has headlined two fundraisers for Cao this cycle. His leadership political action committee (PAC), Freedom Project, contributed $15,000 to Cao.

Fellow House GOP leaders have also donated thousands to Cao’s reelection effort. Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) contributed $10,000 from his leadership PAC; Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gave Cao $4,000; and NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) donated Cao $7,000 from his personal and leadership PACs.

The NRCC has very few races to defend, but it has opted not to play defense in Louisiana. The committee recently spent more than $120,000 to help targeted Rep. Charles Djou (R-Hawaii), who represents a district that Obama won in 2008 with 70 percent of the vote.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has spent $650,000 in Hawaii’s 1st district, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission independent-expenditure filing on Oct. 19.

Polls show that Djou and Democratic challenger Colleen Hanabusa are in a statistical dead heat in the race for the district where the president grew up.

Democrats view Cao’s seat as one of very few opportunities to pick up a seat this election cycle. However, the DCCC has not yet bought ad time in that district.

A recent poll by The Daily Kos/Public Policy Polling showed Richmond with an 11-percentage-point advantage over Cao in Louisiana.

Cao’s campaign officials say they have their own poll numbers that tell a much different story, but declined to release those figures.

“We know for a fact that this is a very competitive race, more competitive than the Richmond campaign would like folks to believe, and we’re very confident that we’re going to be surprising a lot of people on Election Day,” Johnson said.