The Magazine

No Shore Thing

A Maryland GOP stronghold is under siege.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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Maryland's first congressional district doesn't usually generate headlines. It's a reliably Republican district that a moderate, Wayne Gilchrest, has held comfortably for nine terms. Yet Gilchrest lost the Republican primary in February to the staunchly conservative Andy Harris--a three-term state senator from Baltimore County--by a 10-point margin (43.4 percent to 33.1 percent). The race for the unexpectedly open seat has garnered national attention, and big bucks, from both parties.

Gilchrest had seen off a number of primary challenges over the years thanks to his voting record--he broke with his party more than any other representative in 2007, for example, and was a prominent opponent of the surge strategy in Iraq. But, in 2008, the Club for Growth set its sights on Gilchrest and funneled over $1 million into the primary in support of Harris.

Gilchrest's defeat, though, caught the attention of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) who targeted this race, along with 21 other open seats, as part of its "Red to Blue" program. The DCCC went even further in September, announcing an ad commitment totaling over $1 million, after a poll showed the Democratic candidate Frank M. Kratovil--a second-term state's attorney for Queen Anne's County--dead even with Harris (36-36 percent, with 25 percent undecided).

The district, which encompasses the whole Eastern Shore and the noncontiguous conservative bits of Harford, Baltimore, and Anne Arundel counties on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, is undeniably conservative. In 2000, Bush captured the district 57 to 40 percent; in 2004, he won 62 to 36 percent. The biggest reason for the competitiveness of the race is that Gilchrest endorsed Kratovil early in September and has been campaigning with him. The endorsement was a "catalyst for Democratic enthusiasm" in the race and raised Kratovil's profile, says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, which shifted the race from the "likely Republican" column to "lean Republican" on September 18.

Despite all this, Harris believes he has the race sewn up. He can come off as a bit cocky in person, dismissing the DCCC's large ad buys and constantly repeating the notion that the district is conservative and therefore he will win. Harris's campaign manager, Chris Meekins, admits that it is "going to be a close race," but reiterates that "if voters find out the differences between the two candidates, Harris is going to win."

Kratovil is well aware of this and has been campaigning as a Blue Dog Democrat. He touts his support for the compromise immigration bill that failed last year, his pro-gun policies, and his fiscal responsibility. At the first debate, on September 30, Kratovil spoke in Obama-esque platitudes, calling for "change" in Washington and an end to partisanship. He said the war was a mistake but opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal. He also proposed requiring everyone to have health insurance and using the federal government to expand coverage. He went after Harris on the environment, a key issue on the Eastern Shore.

Harris, 51, showed a commanding physical presence at the debate, standing at least a head taller than Kratovil, and even at times appearing menacing, speaking in a taunting, sarcastic tone. A member of U.S. Naval Reserve Medical Corps and veteran of the Gulf War, Harris hammered Kratovil for labeling the mission in Iraq an "occupation." He also attacked him for taking contributions from trial lawyers and for supporting tax hikes. When he accused Kratovil of refusing to prosecute sex offenders, drug dealers, and other criminals--without offering any specifics--he drew boos from the audience.

The economy was the hot topic at the debate, with Harris opposing the financial bailout and Kratovil countering by trying to tie him to big oil, lobbyists, and Wall Street greed. (The DCCC has been running an ad to reinforce these links.) Harris is sticking to his calls for tax cuts and the reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Kratovil has been endorsed by Democratic governor Martin O'Malley, and Harris was keen to associate Kratovil with the unpopular governor's tax hikes.Harris's campaign is also asserting that Kratovil will vote in lockstep with House majority leader Steny Hoyer--who is close with Kratovil's father--and DCCC chair Chris Van Hollen, both fellow Marylanders, though Kratovil tells me, "I'm going to be my own guy."

Kratovil has another local advantage besides the Gilchrest endorsement. He hails from the Eastern Shore, which has "tended to feel sometimes neglected by people in power in the state government," says Bill Flook, president of the 33rd District Democratic Club in Anne Arundel County, which encompasses part of the first district. "Frank is seen as one of their own," which could help him with undecided voters. David Wasserman, though, thinks that undecideds are more likely to break for Harris in such a conservative district. While Kratovil told me on October 1 that the election was "at least dead even," Wasserman puts Harris somewhere between the margin of error and a lead of 5 to 10 points.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which has not disclosed where it is focusing its ad money (but by all accounts has put nowhere near the $1 million that the DCCC has poured into the Harris-Kratovil race), is also sure of a Harris victory. Ken Spain, the NRCC's press secretary, says, "I'm very confident that [Harris] will win the race at the end of the day."

Whitney Blake is a writer living in Washington, D.C.