AMAC Exclusive – By B.C. Brutus
Democrats are facing one of their toughest U.S. Senate maps in years in 2024, with an eye-popping 23 seats in play, compared to just 11 for Republicans. Although not the most likely flip, one of those seats is in Virginia, where Hung Cao, a retired Navy Captain, is the most high-profile GOP contender vying to take down incumbent Tim Kaine – and he might just have the right candidate profile and message to do it.
Cao burst onto the political scene in Virginia last year with an unexpected victory in the Republican primary for the state’s 10th Congressional District, currently held by Democrat Jennifer Wexton. During his first run for political office of any kind, Cao won an astounding 42 percent of the vote in a field of 11 candidates. He was outspent more than two-to-one in the primary by the second-place vote-getter, who enjoyed high-profile endorsements from Republican leaders like House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik.
However, Cao would go on to lose to Wexton in the general election last November. But the results suggested that Republicans may have nonetheless founding a rising star in Cao. Despite a bad night overall for Republicans, being far outspent by a strong incumbent in Wexton – and running in a district that Biden won by nearly 19 points in 2020 – Cao came up short by a margin of only 53.2 percent to 46.7 percent, a 13-point swing from two years earlier.
Just a few months later, in July of this year, Cao announced his bid to take on Kaine. Although Virginia has trended more and more Democratic in recent years, a clean GOP sweep in the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general races in 2021, led by Glenn Youngkin, has renewed hope that there is still a path for a strong Republican candidate to win statewide.
For Cao, overcoming long odds is in his blood. His family arrived in the United States as Vietnamese refugees when he was just four years old after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Cao’s mother and father both saw their fathers imprisoned by the Vietcong and lived in extreme poverty throughout their youth. Despite working to provide for his mother and three younger siblings from the age of 13, Cao’s father still went on to attend the University of the Philippines and later Cornell, where he met Cao’s mother before the pair moved back to Vietnam.
After the Cao family escaped Saigon just days before the fall of the country, Hung’s father took a job with the State Department that saw the family shipped off to West Africa, where Hung lived until he was seven years old. The family then returned to the United States, where Cao became part of the inaugural graduate class from the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.
Cao’s success in high school earned him admission to the Naval Academy, where he again excelled. He went on to Naval postgraduate school, receiving a master’s degree in physics and completing fellowships at Harvard and MIT.
But instead of pursuing a lucrative career in engineering or science, Cao would spend more than 25 years as a commissioned Naval officer, including several tours of active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. He later went on to work with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, and, in perhaps his most impressive feat, led a successful effort to balance the Navy’s $140 billion Pentagon budget.
After his time in the military, Cao went on to a career in the private sector, eventually becoming a vice president at CACI International, one of the world’s most successful professional services and information technology companies.
Cao has repeatedly expressed that he has no real desire to be in politics, but feels called to do so because of the state of the country. “I don’t think anybody should want to do this,” Cao told the Washington Examiner after announcing his Senate bid. “I mean, I’m a VP of a Fortune 500 company, but what’s all this money going to be worth when we have no freedom? This is a fight we must take, and the time is now. We have to hold the line. We have to preserve the Constitution of the United States.”
In his announcement video for Senate, Cao compares the Biden administration’s weaponization of the FBI and other federal law enforcement to the communist oppression his family faced in Vietnam. “We’re losing our country. You know it,” Cao says. “But you also know that you can’t say it. We’re forced to say that wrong is right. We’re forced to lie.”
Cao’s Senate campaign has so far followed much of the same strategy as his House campaign last year, with a heavy focus on education and dismantling the left’s “equity” policies. Seeing as Cao managed to shift a district Biden won by 19 points in 2020 to a six-point Democrat win in 2022, the hope is that a similar 13-point shift in a state Biden won by just 10 points in 2020 would be enough for a GOP victory.
Cao undoubtedly has a tough road ahead. In 2018, Kaine won re-election 57 percent to 41 percent over his Republican challenger – six points better than Biden’s margin of victory in 2020.
But if Republicans hope to have a truly historic wave year and win a large majority in the Senate, they will likely need a significant upset in a state that normally leans blue. With a candidate like Hung Cao, Virginia might be the best place for such an upset to occur.
B.C. Brutus is the pen name of a writer with previous experience in the legislative and executive branches.