The lone Republican lawmaker to support Democratic health care legislation has seen his fundraising drop by nearly 40 percent since his vote, and he is quickly burning through a dwindling bank account after resorting to a costly national fundraising operation.
Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, the unlikely congressman from New Orleans, is facing the perils of bipartisanship unlike any other lawmaker in Washington — trying to please a heavily Democratic constituency while relying on core conservatives for money to fuel his campaign.
Although Republican leaders have continued supporting Cao with money from their campaign committees despite his health care position, the conservative donors he's courting around the country may not be so forgiving.
A Vietnamese-American, Cao (pronounced gow) won his seat in 2008 even as President Barack Obama took 75 percent of the vote in the district, which is 60 percent black. Like Louisiana's Indian-American governor, Bobby Jindal, Cao was hailed as a next-generation Republican who could put a more diverse face on the party's predominantly white image.
But Cao's victory was unique. It came only after his Democratic opponent and predecessor, Rep. William Jefferson, was found with $90,000 in his freezer and indicted on bribery charges. Republicans acknowledge that Cao will have a tough time holding the seat.
Even in a favorable political climate for Republicans, Cao's contributions have fallen sharply since he was alone among 178 GOP House members to vote for the health care bill on Nov. 7. He raised less than $250,000 during the three months surrounding the vote, compared with nearly $400,000 the previous quarter.
At the same time, he spent more than he raised — with nearly $9 of every $10 going to buy conservative donor databases, send solicitations and pay for consultants and other fundraising expenses, according to an Associated Press review of his campaign finance report.
There are no rules governing how much a candidate should spend on fundraising, but Cao's ratio is unusually high, particularly for a sitting congressman.
Since starting his re-election campaign last year, at least $640,000 of the $874,602 Cao has reported spending has gone toward fundraising — about 75 percent. Instead of promoting him in the district, most of the money went to a network of conservative Washington-area consultants.
Heading into the midterm election season, Cao had just $315,000 in the bank — a weak tally in an age when incumbents frequently stockpile $1 million or more. One of Cao's two Democratic opponents, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, is gaining on him, with about $225,000 cash on hand, in part from self-financing.
In an interview with the AP, Cao acknowledged his contributions are down and fundraising expenses are eating up a large portion of them. But he said he expects his investment in direct-mail solicitations outside his district to start paying dividends.
"We use those organizations to build up a donor list, and obviously to do that requires a lot of outreach and mailing," said Cao. "The cost is high in the beginning, but as you go through the campaign the returns will be a lot better."
That may be wishful thinking. Cao's network of fundraising consultants is led by a company called Base Connect, which has a track record of taking huge fees while sometimes leaving its candidates with little in return.
Cao has gone along with its strategy — casting himself as a Ronald Reagan conservative and a threat to the Democrats' agenda. But he knows he can take the approach only so far without alienating voters hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. He said he put a stop to one early mailing because it was too strident.
"I have always stressed bipartisanship and that includes when we do campaign fundraising," he said.
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