Louisiana boots William "Cold Cash" Jefferson

In a shocker only because it involves New Orleans, incumbent Democrat William Jefferson lost his Congressional seat to a Republican upstart in a raced delayed by Hurricane Gustav.  Anh “Joseph” Cao handily defeated the man who hid $90,000 in his freezer and diverted Hurricane Katrina responders to service his needs.  Most people figured that his re-election in 2006 had meant that “Cold Cash” had been forgiven by his constituents:

Republicans made an aggressive push to take the 2nd District seat from the 61-year-old Jefferson, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, laundering money and misusing his congressional office.

“The people of the 2nd District have spoken,” Cao, 41, told supporters at a restaurant near the French Quarter. “We want new direction. We want action. We want accountability.”

In a speech that was gracious but stopped short of concession, Jefferson blamed low voter turnout for his showing and said supporters may have thought he was a shoo-in after he won a Nov. 4 primary in the predominantly black and heavily Democratic district. …

New Orleans voters had long been loyal to Jefferson, re-electing him in 2006 even after news of the bribery scandal broke. Late-night TV comics made him the butt of jokes after federal agents said they found $90,000 in alleged bribe money hidden in his freezer.

“People are innocent until proven guilty,” said Faye Leggins, 54, an educator and Democrat who moved back to the city six months ago and still has fresh memories of Hurricane Katrina. She voted for Jefferson on Saturday. “He has enough seniority, so he can do a lot to redevelop this city.”

People are innocent until proven guilty?  That’s the standard for imprisoning someone, not for electing them to Congress.  LA-02 voters used that standard in 2006, though, and Jefferson had no reason to doubt that they’d apply it again until his loss became obvious.

Cao becomes the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress.  That’s remarkable, considering the short history of the Vietnamese in this country.  The first significant wave of immigration occurred just 30 years ago, and they have worked hard to establish themselves in America.  Cao had to fight long odds to win this seat, and is to be congratulated for working hard when many Republicans wrote this seat off as impossible during this campaign.

What does this mean for the Democrats?  It’s an embarrassment, since they could have saved this seat by finding and backing a credible candidate in the primary.  The turnout model reinforces the lesson from Georgia’s Senate run-off as well.  Without Barack Obama on the ballot, the Democrats have little draw — which is no surprise given the approval rating of Congress at the moment.

Update: Chris Cillizza provides the context:

In 2007, Jefferson was indicted on 16 counts relating to allegations that he had accepted bribes from companies hoping to secure contracts in Africa. Jefferson insisted he had done nothing wrong.

The primary election in Louisiana — held on Nov. 4 — gave Jefferson a 57 percent to 43 percent margin, a sign, many believed, that his ongoing legal problems would not impact his electoral success.

Tonight’s results affirm that conventional wisdom regarding Jefferson was dead wrong.

Actually, I think it affirms that Jefferson’s primary victory came through opportunism.   LA-02 had heavy turnout for Obama’s election, and many of the voters added Jefferson onto Obama’s coattails.  Without Obama, a lot fewer people appeared motivated to cast a ballot at all — and that should concern Democrats, and not just in Louisiana.

Jazz Shaw congratulates New Orleans:

Perhaps we truly are living in a post-racial, post partisan age. Jefferson’s district is heavily African-American and leans Democratic by a significant margin. Still, they chose to oust the embarrassing Dollar Bill and bring in a Vietnamese-American Republican and give that a try. Well done, Louisiana. You have closed the book on a nasty chapter of your history and chosen to move forward with a hopefully increased amount of integrity and pride.

I’d have been more impressed if they’d done it in 2006, but better late than never.