Jefferson Defeated by 1st Vietnamese Congressman

William “The Freezer” Jefferson, who has been under federal indictment for three years, narrowly lost a hurricane-delayed election yesterday to Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao.

Nine-term Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, who has been battling scandals and a federal indictment for the past three years, lost his bid for re-election on Saturday. Republican challenger Anh “Joseph” Cao, an attorney and community organizer, defeated Jefferson in the 2nd Congressional district race. He will become the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Cao had almost 50 percent of the vote to Jefferson’s 47 percent.

The 2nd Congressional district, in and around New Orleans, is mostly African-American and heavily Democratic, and Jefferson appeared to be favored to win re-election going into the election. “The people of the second district were able to transcend party, transcend race,” Cao said after claiming victory Saturday night.

Voters also chose Republican John Fleming over Democrat Paul Carmouche in Louisiana’s 4th District by a slim 356-vote margin. Fleming will replace retiring 10-term Republican Rep. Jim McCrery, a top-ranking Republican on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Elections in the districts were delayed after Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana in September, setting up what should be the last two federal contests of 2008 on Saturday. Both races had two other contenders who drew a small percentage of votes.

While Republicans on Twitter and Memeorandum seem excited by these outcomes, I hesitate to read much into them. The 4th was a Republican hold. Given the margins, one presumes Jefferson would have won had the contest taken place on November 4 and turnout been normal. Indeed, if he’s still a free man two years hence, I wouldn’t be at all shocked if Jefferson runs again and wins. Certainly, it’s unlikely Cao will be able to hold on to a heavily Democratic district.

Still, it’s good to get him out if only for a while.  And Patrick Ruffini is right:

[T]here could be no more vivid example of why we need to run Republican candidates in every district than Louisiana’s 2nd. Cao won his seat more solidly than Fleming did in an R+7 seat. Starting with Obama CoS Rahm Emanuel, Democrats started to understand that Congressional races can be very nonpartisan under the right circumstances and that poor performance or other personal shortcomings by the incumbent can render even a hefty party ID deficit meaningless.  We can’t recreate Bill Jefferson in every district — the guy was indicted on 16 counts and the feds found 90 G’s in his freezer. It’s also an accident of history that the election happened today instead of on 11/4 when Jefferson could have ridden Obama’s coattails — it was delayed by Hurricane Gustav. There isn’t a Bill Jefferson in every district, but there is a Joseph Cao.

Now, there are plenty of “safe” seats where the incumbent not only has a huge partisan advantage but is also simply a very good Representative.  It’s not worth the opposition expending tremendous resources in losing efforts in those cases.  It is, though, worth grooming and running good candidates who can be funded if the incumbent suddenly becomes vulnerable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    Republican challenger Anh “Joseph” Cao…community organizer

    Wait a minute…

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yeah, I noted that too. “Community organizer” is a good background for an aspiring legislator. It’s usually skipped over when campaigning for president, what with years of experience in more important jobs generally on the resume.

  3. odograph says:

    My amusement with the sneering was that “community organizing” is a lot like campaigning, and of course like the “ground game” that everyone focuses on in the closing weeks.

    It might have been a case where believing their own BS undermined their own preparation.

  4. James Joyner says:

    The GOP long had a structural problem of people wanting to start at the middle (Congressman or higher) and thus ceding municipal offices and the state legislatures — the preparation grounds for those middle level jobs — to the Democrats. That’s no longer the case but, unfortunately, it’s most the religious right that’s doing that ground level organizing.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Louisiana has a blanket-primary system, which poses a different set of opportunities and problems for the G.O.P. I lived in Jefferson’s district the first time he won election. There were about 6-8 people on the primary ballot, consitsting of IIRC Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.

    But the top two vote-getters in the primary then go on to run against each other in the general election. I remember voting for Jefferson’s opponent in the general election, Marc Morial, another Democrat. It’s extremely difficult in that situation for a Republican to win a majority Democratic district.

  6. fester says:

    James — speaking as a Dem supporter of the 435-Plan — run everywhere, all the time, just as a matter of logistics I think decent candidates have to be running at all times in all districts to take advantage of incumbents who shoot themselves in the foot. Take a look at Carney in PA-10 who won in 2006. He was not a top tier candidate, but not a horrendous candidate either (good local ties, military history, professor of a relevant political subject area etc) who benefited from the Republican incumbent having a reasonably well publicized mistress choking problem. If a 3rd or 4th tier placeholder was running that seat would have stayed Republican. The Dems faced the same type of problem in PA-6 in 2004 where the incumbent had a mini-scandal and the Dems were running a perpetual activist candidate and she could not capitalize on the massive infusion of attention and cash.

    If you are going to run on picking off the unlikely scraps, you have to run everywhere with non-incompetent candidates.

  7. James Joyner says:

    If you are going to run on picking off the unlikely scraps, you have to run everywhere with non-incompetent candidates.

    Right. That’s what I was getting at in the last paragraph. Basically, you have them in place in case the race gets interesting, and then pour money in. That’s different than treating every race as winnable and spending money foolishly.