National independent political groups that played a significant role in last year's midterm elections are beginning to engage again in competitive House districts in Illinois, Florida and other states, though so far they've pulled their punches in what could be Maryland's most closely watched race in 2012.
The 1st Congressional District was a high-profile battleground in the past two elections — Democrats captured it in 2008, and Republicans won it back in 2010. But political analysts say uncertainty over the state's redistricting process along with incumbent Rep. Andy Harris' double-digit win last year may be giving some national Democratic groups pause.
The virtual silence by third-party groups comes after an election in which fundraising arms of the House political parties and other independent political organizations dumped $4.2 million into the district — making it the 12th-most expensive House race for such spending in the country, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis.
Maryland's 1st District includes the Eastern Shore as well as portions of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.
Harris, the Baltimore County Republican who beat Democratic incumbent Frank Kratovil with a better than 12 percent margin in 2010, has his own theory about why the district has largely been overlooked.
"I think [Democrats] realize that unless the district is reorganized in a major way that it's going to be less competitive than they think it will be," Harris said. "Maryland does have a lot of people who vote Republican."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began making automated phone calls in 14 Republican-held districts on Thursday — including two in Pennsylvania, three in Illinois and two in Florida. The calls, none of which were placed into Maryland, attack GOP lawmakers for voting in April for a budget proposal that would have reduced deficits in part by cutting Medicare.
Meanwhile, a recently formed group called House Majority PAC, which Democratic strategists hope will compete with conservative third-party groups that spent millions in 2010, ran a series of radio or cable ads in eight districts in Arkansas, Illinois, Nevada and elsewhere, but skipped Maryland.
Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the group, criticized Harris' voting record and said the PAC's leaders were "keeping our eye on this seat." Josh Schwerin, a regional press secretary with the DCCC, said in a statement that the powerful group would "continue to hold Representative Harris accountable." Neither answered questions about their plans for the district.
The hands-off approach has also been pronounced on the Republican side, though Harris managed to bring Rep. Paul Ryan to his district in June for an event. Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, has been cheered by conservatives — and attacked by Democrats — for his proposal to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid.
With the election still 16 months off, it's early for third-party groups to be engaged anywhere, but uncertainly surrounding the impact of redistricting in Maryland is also keeping some of the initial interest at bay, analysts said. Congressional lawmakers are working behind the scenes on redistricting proposals, and the general Assembly will hold a special session this fall to approve new maps.
David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said things will get a lot more interesting once that process plays out.
"Although no one is paying much attention right now, Democrats are carefully planning to take a sledgehammer to the 1st District," said Wasserman, who recently moved the seat from Cook's "likely Republican" column to the slightly more competitive "lean Republican."
"Redistricting will be used," he said, "to roll out the blue carpet for Frank Kratovil."
Kratovil may be the most likely Democrat to take on Harris, but he hasn't said whether he'll run. He is quick to criticize Harris, dubbing him part of the "Bachmann brigade," in reference to the conservative Minnesota congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.
"I'm certainly frustrated by a lot of what I'm seeing," Kratovil said. "Having said that, I have yet to decide whether I'm going to run or not."
With the field still undefined and the district free of third-party involvement, Harris has been working to shore up GOP support by focusing on state issues —opposing a proposed increase in bridge and tunnel tolls, and the law granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
The down-time has also allowed Harris to focus on fundraising. The physician-turned-politician reported raising $211,702 in the first quarter of this year. Without disclosing specifics, Harris said his campaign raised even more in the second quarter, which ended Thursday. The second-quarter reports are due to the Federal Elections Commission July 15.
On the other hand, there may be little advantage for state Democrats to reveal their plan for the congressional maps anytime soon. If past elections are any indication, the ability to eke out a victory will depend in part on the national mood — and it's far too early to predict that.
Under the Maryland Constitution, the governor is responsible for submitting a redistricting plan to the General Assembly. As a first public step in that process, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, named five members of an advisory redistricting committee on Monday. That group will hold its first hearing Wednesday.
Democrats enjoy a 2-1 advantage in voter registration in Maryland but have used redistricting to seize a 6-2 majority in the state's House delegation. The 1st District, where Democrats and Republicans are about evenly split, was home to moderate Republican Wayne Gilchrest for 18 years.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Southern Maryland lawmaker and second-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, said he and other Democratic members of the delegation are working on their own redistricting proposal, which they intend to submit to O'Malley. Asked whether the state's congressional Democrats would coalesce around one proposal, Hoyer said he hoped "by the end of the process we come to a consensus."
He expects his recommendation will be completed by the end of the month.
"Obviously, it won't be up to us," Hoyer said. "It's their responsibility, but I certainly think they'll take into consideration our recommendations."