Republican Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao's bid for re-election in Louisiana's heavily Democratic 2nd District is one of the most closely watched races in the country, but most of the action so far has been on the Democratic side. Cao has no GOP opponent, while several Democrats have lined up to oppose him.
Many expected the Aug. 28 Democratic primary to be a slugfest between state Reps. Cedric Richmond of eastern New Orleans and Juan LaFonta, whose district includes parts of the French Quarter, Treme, Marigny, Bywater and Gentilly.
Two other Democrats also are running, but neither can match Richmond and LaFonta's money or the name recognition. Eugene Green once served as a top aide to Congressman Bill Jefferson, and Gary Johnson is a New Orleans native who worked on Capitol Hill for the House Rules Committee. Green has run for office before, but this is Johnson's first race.
There is little love lost between Richmond and LaFonta, and that was supposed to provide the fireworks of this campaign. It also gave the Cao campaign hope that Richmond, the consensus Democratic frontrunner, would be bloodied by the time he faces Cao in the Nov. 2 general election. Some Cao backers even hoped that Richmond would be forced into an Oct. 2 Democratic runoff, which would leave him strapped for cash.
Those expectations may have fizzled. The outspoken LaFonta, who never retreats from a fight and isn't shy about picking one, recently told his supporters not to attack Richmond. He likewise promised to take the high road himself. If that promise holds up, and if LaFonta's supporters honor his request, it should solidify Richmond's early advantage in the polls and fundraising.
In the context of Louisiana's politics, however, those are big "ifs." Richmond says he has heard about LaFonta's pledge but he has not spoken to LaFonta about it. He adds, warily, "If attacked, I will defend myself."
Meanwhile, Richmond has racked up key endorsements in the district, which includes most of Orleans Parish, most of the West Bank of Jefferson and a handful of precincts in Kenner and unincorporated East Jefferson. Most of LaFonta's and Richmond's area colleagues in the House are backing Richmond, as are several prominent local officials in Orleans and Jefferson — District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson, Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee (who was one of Richmond's opponents for this seat two years ago) and, just last week, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
On the national front, Richmond has won endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, effectively making him the party's choice even before Democratic voters in the district weighed in.
While all this gives Richmond comfort, LaFonta has taught his past opponents not to underestimate him. He is a skillful street politician who always manages to turn out his supporters on election day. Moreover, the last Saturday in August is not a day that voters in Louisiana typically go to the polls, which means the turnout for the Democratic primary could be exceedingly low — which means that anything can happen.