Every Cao has a silver lining

Republicans are looking for hope in the unlikeliest of places -- like the defeat of one Democratic Congressman who's under federal indictment.

Published December 8, 2008 9:45PM (EST)

Nobody’s better at finding silver linings than a recently thumped political party. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the GOP is getting a little overexcited about the upset recently pulled off in deep-blue New Orleans, where Joseph Cao unseated incumbent Democratic Rep. William Jefferson.

Politico runs this gem from House Minority Leader John Boehner (h/t to Steve Benen):

In a memo to colleagues called "The Time is Cao," Boehner says that Anh "Joseph" Cao's win over Jefferson in a heavily Democratic district points the way out of the wilderness. The House GOP focus, he argues, ought to be ethics, ethics, ethics.

"The Future is Cao" reads the subject line of Boehner's memo. "As House Republicans look ahead to the next two years, the Cao victory is a symbol of what can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative, and work aggressively to earn the trust of the American people," offers Boehner.

Cao won, as you may have gathered, on “ethics.” Because of the unique circumstances in this case, though -- Jefferson, who's most famous for stashing $90,000 in his freezer, is under federal indictment -- this race seems an unlikely model for future Republican success. And that's putting it mildly.

This result seems like a classic example of a fluke, brought about by Jefferson's indictment and not a larger political reality. Jefferson's district, Louisiana-2, has a PVI of D+28; that is, it’s an average of 28 percentage points more Democratic than the country as a whole. Compare Jefferson's loss with what happened at the same time in the state's 4th district, which has a PVI of R+7. There, it looks like Republican John Fleming scraped by with just 356 votes to spare over Democrat Paul Carmouche, who has not yet conceded and will, most likely, ask for a recount.

Elsewhere, counting of provisional ballots put Ohio Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy solidly ahead in her race to capture the seat currently held by retiring Republican Deborah Pryce, canceling out the Republicans' pick-up of Jefferson's district.

So, to sum up the weekend: Republicans won a race that no one saw coming, gaining a seat that will be just about impossible to hold. In the same state, they appear to have barely held on to another district that typically leans strongly Republican. Meanwhile, further counting gave Democrats a moderate Ohio district that they’ve been targeting for years. Sounds to me like a comeback for sure.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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