Anh "Joseph" Cao was widely seen as a congressman of genuine integrity at a time when voters were looking for politicians they could trust, a man who seemed able to overcome the odds without losing his soul.
A freshman Republican from Louisiana's strongly Democratic 2nd District, Cao sometimes bucked his party's leadership but at other times took positions at odds with the views of his constituents. He was a Vietnamese-American -- the first elected to Congress -- in a district that was 60 percent black, a onetime Catholic seminarian who in 2008 defeated an African-American Democrat who was under indictment for corruption.
But inspiration could not overcome political realities on the ground, and on Tuesday, Cao was soundly defeated, 65-33 percent, by Cedric Richmond, a black Democrat and longtime statehouse representative.
Still, there was an argument to be made that Cao was done in as much by his own side as by the electoral math.
Last fall, Cao was the lone Republican to vote for the House's health care reform bill, and only after it included the Stupak amendment specifically barring taxpayer funding of abortion. He came under intense pressure
from the GOP leadership for that defection, and when the Senate -- and final -- version of the bill came back, Cao voted against it, saying its language on abortion funding was not sufficiently strong.
Cao then earned the scorn of conservatives when he co-sponsored both the Hate Crimes Protection Act of 2009 and legislation to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays and lesbians serving openly.
While the party still said it backed him, the Family Research Council, the conservative Christian lobby with closely allied with the GOP, ran a last-minute radio ad that blasted Cao
"Who is Rep. Joseph Cao representing in Washington?" the FRC ad asked. "Cao has repeatedly voted for extra protections for homosexuals at the cost of religious liberty. Cao voted to use the military to advance the radical social agendas of homosexual activists and he voted for a so-called hate crimes bill that places your personal liberties at jeopardy."
Cao's "record is dismal on our issues," Tony Perkins, the former Louisiana legislator who heads the Washington-based FRC, told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
Cao told the newspaper that the charges were "ridiculous."
"I believe it is a human rights violation to impose government-sanctioned penalties on a group of people just because of their sexual orientation, just as it would be a human rights violation to impose penalties on a group because of its religious affiliation or race," Cao said. "I will continue to fight for the protection of human rights for all people."
Whether the FRC ad played a role in Cao's defeat is unclear, especially given the margin of his loss.
But Cao seemed ready to leave office much as he entered, with the kind of equanimity that was both part of his nature and a necessity given the precarious political position in which he found himself.
"I see my role as a representative of this district as a gift from God and as a gift from the people," he told CNN
during the campaign. "And once my job is over and done with, I'm very happy to go back to being a dad, a college professor."