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‘Orphan Districts’ Present Perks and Pitfalls

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

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.”

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