Nearly two years ago, in the wake of Anh “Joseph” Cao’s victory over scandal-plagued incumbent William Jefferson, the conventional political wisdom was that the Vietnamese Republican’s triumph in the very Democratic-leaning, African-American majority 2nd Congressional District was a fluke. It could not happen again in a normal election, the pundits mused, but a recent poll suggests they may have spoken too soon.
According to a new Verne Kennedy survey, in a head to head contest, Joseph Cao leads the likely Democratic frontrunner State Rep. Cedric Richmond by a 51%-26% margin.
That the GOP first term incumbent manages to achieve such a statistical lead in a US House seat which Barack Obama won with over 75% of the vote, and where no Republican had previously held office in over a century, alone came as an extraordinary boost for the first Vietnamese American Congressman’s re-election bid. Then, Cao learned that his sole Republican primary opponent dropped out of the race, while his aforementioned likely principal opponent drew strong and unexpected competition both in the Democratic primary and the General election.
The poll, conducted from May 27-June 2 by Kennedy's firm, Market Research Insight, surveyed 400 voters for a margin of error of +/- 5%. In it, Cao leads Richmond by a 67%-13% margin among White voters, and by a narrower 39%-36% margin among Black voters.
With 61% of the voter registration rolls in the Second District comprised of African-Americans, that the Vietnamese Republican could essentially tie a Black Democratic State Representative seems remarkable enough, but Kennedy goes on to point out that the Congressman’s advantage grows because, in this mid-term election, the LA pollster believes that turnout among black voters will top out at 57%.
As a result, Kennedy polls a sample of 57% African American voters, with a 39% white electorate. Should Black turnout in 2010 equal the huge 2008 turnout for Barack Obama, Cao’s advantage shrinks of course. Moreover, the poll does not take into account that one of the declared independents in the race, the Rev. Anthony Marquize, a White foreign missions pastor for White Dove Fellowship on the West Bank of Jefferson who has courted Tea Party support, could hurt the Congressman’s support with the Caucasian conservatives the Republican desperately needs.
Nor does the poll account for the presence of former legislative candidate Ron Austin in the Congressional contest. An active member of the Jefferson Alliance for Good Government, the prominent African-American attorney also entered the race as an Independent, like Marquize, in the November General election. His presence and higher political profile, some argue, hurts Cedric Richmond more than Marquize hurts Cao.
Cao's lead comes even as both candidates were identified by party, or put another way, voters said they would vote for Cao even though they knew of his Republican loyalties. Usually, GOP candidates are proverbially dead on arrival with the Black electorate, but Kennedy argues, "Strong evidence exists that a fundamental change has occurred among African-Americans in the New Orleans area, where performance overrides ethnic voting…And since Joseph Cao is also a minority candidate who has an outstanding record of personal and political accomplishments, African-Americans identify with him and are willing to give much higher support to a non-African-American than in previous elections."
African-Americans did render to Bobby Jindal 15% of their vote in the 2007 Gubernatorial election, in part--as exit polling suggested--because they found his Indian Heritage more acceptable as an ethnic identity for a Republican.
The poll also suggests that the power of incumbency has benefited Cao. From a candidate that was a virtual unknown when in ran in 2008, the survey declares that 54% of district residents rate him favorably, while just 9% say they see him unfavorably. Conversely, despite his previous runs for both Congress and other offices, Richmond appears far less well-known, with a 23% favorable and 12% unfavorable response..
However, the poll does not challenge the Democratic contention that Richmond’s support will grow as his name recognition increases. It is a strategy that his campaign has embarked upon, with a high profile announcement at the World War II Museum a month ago, and numerous press releases outlining the more than a half million dollars Richmond has in the bank—rivaling Cao’s fundraising.
While the loss of Cao’s primary challenger, Norman Paul Billiot of Marrero, is viewed as a complete positive by the Congressman’s campaign, a competitive Democratic primary could be either a good or bad result for Cedric Richmond. Billiot had the potential of reintroducing the health care issue and Cao’s frequent votes in favor of President Obama’s agenda in front of GOP voters still dissatisfied with Republican Congressman’s partisan apostasy on those issues, despite their popularity with the other 85% of the 2nd District’s electorate.
Richmond, less a maverick and more a conventional Democratic candidate, faces two strong challengers as this newspaper went to press on Friday. State Rep. Juan LaFonta enjoys strong backing from the influential Gay community and the Louisiana Trial Lawyers, key Democratic constituencies that have heavily funded his campaign. Eugene Green, an influential Orleans politico, ex-Congressional aide, and former head of the New Orleans East Business Park, has the potential to mobilize significant support in his own right.
The two men can engage Richmond in primary fight that he has the potential to lose. Or viewed another way, they can also raise Richmond’s profile up to the August 28th election, as they force the Democratic frontrunner to advertise and raise his name recognition throughout 2nd District, particularly in West Jefferson where the State Rep. remains little known. There are few issues that the two men can use against him that might dissuade ideological Democrats from supporting Richmond, so short of the outbreak of a major scandal, the fight could actually improve Richmond’s public identity going into the General Election.
Conversely, Cao does not face the voters now until November, and an old additige of politics remains that he for which one votes in the primary will usually earn one’s vote in the general election. People rarely switch their votes. Of course, no one knows how big turnout for an August 28th primary will be. Louisiana voters rarely pay attention to politics before Labor Day, and a low turnout means a November electorate with few preconceptions beyond the negative ads they see on television.
As such, a brutal Democratic primary fight also has the potential of raising Richmond’s negatives and exhausting much of his campaign bank account as he enters that November general election. That is good news for Cao, and for Ron Austin, who while running as an Independent, explains to The Louisiana Weekly, “I am a Democrat. I will caucus with the Democrats in Congress. What I want to do is provide an alternative outside of the party machines. That’s why I decided to run once in November”
Austin’s argument that he wants to run just once, presenting himself as a moderate Democratic alternative at a time when the voters actually turnout to the polls, could make sense to an electorate used to open primaries. In addition, the articulate young attorney is a well-known and respected figure in Jefferson Parish political circles and around the Gretna Courthouse. Should he be able to bill himself as the Jefferson Parish candidate in a race where two Orleanians otherwise divide the vote is an argument with the potential to garner both money and support in such a three way contest. Meanwhile, Richmond, emerging from a contentious primary, would enjoy considerably fewer resources should he need to triangulate between both Austin and Cao in November.
As strange as it sounds, should Richmond collapse after a brutal primary, and Cao fall prey to a serious gaffe, Austin has enough base support in political circles to potentially mount a campaign with an outside chance of victory against both men. Kennedy’s poll, while it shows a pro-Cao sentiment, also demonstrates a serious Democratic leaning.. A more acceptable Democratic receptacle, even dressed temporarily as an Independent, could benefit from the seat’s ideological lean and willingness to try someone new.
Nevertheless, Richmond remains the clear frontrunner in the Democratic primary, and a favorite in the race, besting both Green and LaFonta in money and institutional support. A sign of his strength was demonstrated when the State Rep. managed to avoid a primary race against State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D), who last week said she wouldn't run and who trailed Cao by a much smaller 49%-30% margin according to Kennedy’s poll.
In such a Democratic leaning, pro-Obama Congressional District, Richmond’s likely general election strategy was demonstrated best last week by DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson. "Rep. Cao has done anything he needed to in order to stay in good graces with his national Republican benefactors and try to block President Obama's agenda in a district where voters strongly support it," he said. "The moment Cao voted against historic health insurance reform was the moment we knew our Democratic nominee will be successful in November."
Richmond at his announcement repeatedly said that “the Second District needs a Congressman that will vote for Health Care reform”, showing the ideological bent of the coming race. Time will tell if incumbency will trump ideology, or if this race remains as unpredictable as it was for those who, like the author, gave Cao no chance of victory when he first announced for Congress in 2008.
Christopher Tidmore is on the radio weekday mornings from 7-8 AM on 1560 AM New Orleans and 1590 AM Baton Rouge, streamed online at www.gtmorning.com.