‘Orphan Districts’ Present Perks and Pitfalls

Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:34pm

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called them “orphan districts” — Congressional races in states without a marquee contest at the top of the ticket, including the presidential race.

There are a lot of them this cycle.

Four years ago, some of the most competitive Congressional races played out in presidential battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. This cycle, many top pickup opportunities are in states that won’t see a single visit — except, perhaps, for fundraising — from a presidential candidate.

A Roll Call analysis found that of the non-open-seat races the House campaign committees see as most competitive, the great majority are in non-battleground presidential states.

This works under the assumption that the following 10 states are the most competitive in the presidential race: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

This is due in large part to redistricting and the overall political climate — which isn’t expected to favor one party prohibitively over the other.

There are 34 races in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Patriot program, the committee’s incumbent protection program. Thirteen are in battleground states in the race for the White House. But 21 are in states where it’s highly unlikely the presidential campaigns will play significantly.

Similarly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has placed 17 races in its Frontline incumbent protection program. Six races are in battleground states. But 11 are in states that likely won’t host a very competitive presidential contest.

The scenario presents both pluses and pitfalls for operatives and consultants. They often rely on national campaign infrastructure for resources to boost their candidates further down the ballot. On the flip side, they can worry about a candidate’s message getting drowned out in the deluge of a huge presidential media operations and individualizing their candidate from the party’s larger message.

“If you’re a Congressional [campaign] and if you’re in a presidential state that’s not a battleground, now all of a sudden, you’re on your own,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “There’s no coordinated effort, there’s no money coming into your state.”

In those states buzzing with Senate and presidential campaigns, House candidates “have to be very creative with their ad campaigns, very creative when it comes to their ad placement strategy,” GOP strategist Jason Miller said.

In orphan districts, it’s easy to get a message out but tougher to get voters to the polls.

“For one thing you don’t have media costs going quite as sky-high,” GOP pollster Glen Bolger said. “And that makes a huge impact. It makes the campaign a bit more affordable.”

In the House, the top competitive races are disproportionately located in New York, Illinois and California. Democrats have dominated this trio on the presidential ticket for decades, and the last GOP White House hopeful to win any of the three was George H. W. Bush in 1988. None of those states have competitive Senate races on the ballot this cycle.

Both parties see this trend as good news. Democrats are happy to be playing to win on safe turf for President Barack Obama. Republicans are thrilled that through redistricting they’ve taken so many formerly competitive races in battleground presidential states off the table.

National Republicans said they are not willing to cede orphan districts, setting up victory operations to give those seats special attention and national resources.

The difference between districts in presidential battleground and non-battleground states “is whether there is a mechanism and a structure for get-out-the-vote and coalition activity,” Republican strategist Brad Todd said. “I believe that the party and outside group apparatus on the right has been well aware of this dichotomy and taken plenty of steps to prepare for it.”

At this point, it’s difficult to see Democrats netting the 25 seats needed to take back the Speaker’s gavel. But even Republican leaders warn that the party has to remain engaged and vigilant, leaving no races on the table. Boehner said earlier this week that Democrats had a one-third chance of taking back the chamber.

But redistricting is a big reason there are fewer competitive House races in battleground states and more in non-battleground ones. Partisan state legislatures used the decennial process to shore up vulnerable Members’ districts.

The GOP controlled the redrawing of lines in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where they turned several swing districts into much safer Republican territory. Democrats in Illinois made a number of GOP seats more competitive. A federal court drew the Empire State’s map, giving both parties significant opportunities for pickups there. And an independent redistricting commission redrew California’s map, putting about a fifth of the delegation in play.

Another factor is the political climate, which appears to be significantly less conducive for the type of major wave election that has transpired the past three cycles. That means that fewer marginal swing districts are likely to be in play.

Of course, the presidential battleground may yet change and the House playing field will remain fluid until the late fall. Republican consultant Fred Davis cautioned that presidential campaigns are still eyeing the map.

“Right now, they’re trying to determine what their resources will be and what kind of boots they can put on the ground,” he said, noting that decisions will probably be made by June.