Speaker Boehner uses Karl Rove-like strategy to hold House GOP majority

Speaker John Boehner has implemented a Karl Rove-like campaign strategy aimed at helping Republicans in blue and red states that are not considered competitive in the 2012 presidential contest.

Boehner is focused on so-called “orphan” districts, knowing that winning these races is the key to retaining the House GOP majority. 

The Ohio Republican only recently noted his concerns on orphan candidates, but he has been working on the issue since early in the 2012 cycle. 

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In February of last year, Boehner tasked his political staff with developing a program through the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) that would partner with state party operations that lack resources in a presidential election year. The joint venture is unique because the NRCC has traditionally focused on messaging, polls and TV ads.

But this effort on get-out-the-vote and other ground-game initiatives has historically been run by the Republican National Committee (RNC).

With half (approximately 25) of the competitive House races in orphan states, Boehner called for a shift in strategy.

A political staffer familiar with the situation said that “the whole orphan dilemma was that you’ve got, effectively, the majority hanging in the balance of states that are not going to get any attention from the presidential campaign. They are not going to get a single dollar … to do the voter identification, to do the turnout, to do those basic blocking and tackling.”

Democrats believe their path to the majority runs through blue states, such as California, Illinois and New York. In a memo earlier this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote that Boehner is “rightfully concerned” that his majority hangs on outcomes in left-leaning states.

Republican officials say Boehner is essentially using a page from Karl Rove’s political playbook, which uses “microtargeting” strategies to turn out GOP voters. 

Furthermore, Barry Jackson, Boehner’s senior adviser, worked under Rove for eight years in the George W. Bush White House. 

The Speaker selected Chris McNulty to be deputy executive director to man the “orphan victory effort” in close contact with the NRCC, RNC, state parties and state delegations. McNulty formerly headed the Ohio Republican Party.

Taking on such a project was complicated because the NRCC has had limited coordination with state parties, especially in the nine orphan states: California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Utah and West Virginia.

Arguably the only competitive race in New Jersey is for Rep. Jon Runyan’s (R) seat, while California has a handful of tough contests, including Rep. Dan Lungren’s (R) Sacramento-based seat and freshman Rep. Jeff Denham’s (R) Central Valley-based district. 

Other Republicans who look to benefit from the orphan program include Reps. Judy Biggert (Ill.), Robert Dold (Ill.), Bobby Schilling (Ill.), Ann Marie Buerkle (N.Y.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.) and Francisco “Quico” Canseco (Texas). 

The NRCC’s role is to provide messaging, polling and money for TV ads.

A political staffer close to the program explained, “A typical congressional campaign has to put almost every dime they raise on TV just because of the sheer nature of the cost of TV. There’s no money, resources or time left for the ‘ground game’ — identifying voters, setting up phone banks, turning out voters, doing voter registration mail, doing absentee ballot applications, get-out-the-vote mail. None of that gets done except if you’re lucky enough to be an embattled lawmaker in a presidential battleground, where it is all done for you because the state party’s going to do it in coordination with the RNC.”

Boehner pledged to raise half the money needed for implementing the novel NRCC/state party partnership up front, tasking the state parties and members of those delegations with the other half. To date, Boehner has helped raise $10 million for the orphan victory effort.

Within 18 months, the NRCC had effectively coordinated with the state parties in those orphans to provide half the resources needed to establish 38 so-called Victory Centers in hotly contested House districts to fill the void left on the ground in a presidential year. Each orphan state has at least one GOP victory center but some, like California and New York, have at least 10 apiece.

Boehner has visited the bluest of the orphan states on several occasions since the victory effort started last year. During the Republican Party convention, the Speaker made a point to huddle with the orphan state delegations. 

The Speaker is limited to donating $10,000 to the state parties, so he often raises the money for the NRCC, which subsequently transmits the donations to the state parties directly. It is then up to the state party to staff, operate and run the victory centers.

These centers are small storefronts in strip malls with 20 to 25 volunteers manning phone banks and a coordinator at the helm sending people out door to door with clipboards and walk lists, said a staffer familiar with the operation.

The key is the metrics that can be analyzed from the phone calls volunteers make to independent or swing voters, transmitted over Voice Over Internet Protocol phones connected to the massive RNC voter file database in D.C.

For example, the volunteer asks if the person will vote for such-and-such congressional candidate; whether he or she approves of the job that President Obama is doing; and if he or she will vote for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. For each response, the volunteer hits a button on the phone to send the respective answer to the RNC.

Once the phone banks have collected the information from their outreach calls, the Victory Centers know how to follow up with the individuals contacted.

If the individual said he or she supports the GOP candidate, the Victory Center will send absentee ballots, follow up with calls and knock on that person’s door on Election Day to make sure he or she votes.

If the individual is undecided, then it’s largely the job of the campaign to go out and convince the individual to vote for him or her.

Boehner political spokesman Cory Fritz said that as of Monday, the combined orphan centers have made 5 million contacts. 

“The Speaker’s Orphan Victory strategy is a key part of Republicans’ efforts to strengthen the House majority ... with the added infrastructure of the new Orphan Victory Program, we’ve made more than 5 million contacts to mobilize voters in support of our GOP members and candidates. In many areas where we’re expecting close races, these efforts could very well make the difference for Republicans,” Fritz said.