Gilchrest in the Cross Hairs

Incumbent Faces Double Trouble in GOP Primary

Posted November 30, 2007 at 6:30pm

POCOMOKE CITY, Md. — Not a whole lot has changed at the WGOP-AM radio studio since the 1950s, when the afternoon broadcast included live chicken auctions so that farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula could get a good idea of the daily price of poultry.

Located on the outskirts of Pocomoke City, a 5,000-person town just about as far southeast as one can go on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the aging studio is decorated with old records and pictures of some of the hillbilly bands that used to perform live from the station for the “Delmarva Jamboree.” These days, two FM stations are also crammed into the studio’s tiny accommodations, and all visitors, regardless of sex, use the ladies’ bathroom because the men’s room has been turned into a storage closet.

One highlight in WGOP’s current lineup is the weekly “Pocomoke City Report” with Mayor Michael McDermott.

Last week, McDermott’s guest for his half-hour segment was Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), the nine-term Congressman who is facing what national and local pundits are calling his toughest primary battle since being elected in 1990.

McDermott’s affection for Gilchrest was unmistakable.

“Everyone here has kind of adopted the Congressman,” he said.

But McDermott is also playing the balanced reporter. Two weeks earlier, McDermott welcomed state Sen. Andrew Harris (R) to his show. Harris is Gilchrest’s top challenger in a primary race that, though just more than two months away, was still growing as of last week.

‘Wayne Is a Good Man, But …’

Gilchrest is a leading GOP moderate in the House who is known as an avid outdoorsman and a champion of environmental conservation. He’s a Congressman who openly says he’d rather be out canoeing on one of the Eastern Shore’s many small rivers than attending a campaign event. But Gilchrest’s independent voting record opens him up to challenges from the right in this strongly Republican territory.

Harris, a staunch conservative who has been endorsed by the powerful Club for Growth, may be Gilchrest’s toughest challenger to date, even though the dynamics of this race continue to be in flux.

On the same day that Gilchrest taped his interview with McDermott, another well-known state Senator, E.J. Pipkin, announced he too was entering the race, bringing the number of candidates in the Republican primary to six.

The standard line of reasoning in this race has been that the more challengers there are, the better Gilchrest’s chances will be because multiple candidates will serve to further dilute the anti-Gilchrest vote.

But as McDermott explained before he taped his interview with the Congressman on Thursday, Gilchrest has another key advantage in this race and it’s one that, intentionally or not, the soft-spoken former public school teacher has cultivated during his Congressional career.

McDermott, who previously served as police chief of the nearby town of Snow Hill, went on to describe an incident in early September 2002 that he said has always stayed with him, even when he’s disagreed with Gilchrest politically — including when the Congressman voted this year for a Democratic resolution that opposed sending more troops to Iraq.

On Sept. 1, 2002, a gas leak in a home in Snow Hill led to a massive explosion that killed one utility worker and sent 13 firefighters and four others to the hospital, some with severe burns. With the nation already jumpy on the eve of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the incident sparked a media frenzy that brought national attention, and several news helicopters from Washington, D.C., hovered over the site of the disaster.

“But it was a day after all the hubbub, when all the news teams left the area that [Gilchrest] called me and asked if we could come out and walk the [explosion] site,” McDermott recalled. “There was no reporter, no media there. He didn’t want that to be the focus of his visit. … He just wanted to see it for himself and he asked me what he could do to help. … I went home that night and told my wife that I learned something about a Congressman today. A rare insight into his soul.”

Harry Basehart, co-director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury University, said voters regard Gilchrest “as a next-door neighbor. … The Eastern Shore is a very unpretentious place and people appreciate that.”

“Wayne is a good and decent person and when you meet him you know that,” Basehart continued.

“It’s interesting,” McDermott added. “People who run against him always say, ‘Wayne is a good man, but …’”

Independence Vs. GOP Principles

This year, it’s tough to say whether the mounting “buts” will outweigh Gilchrest’s image as a good man.

Harris’ strategy since joining the race six months ago has been to highlight his own conservative positions on tax and fiscal matters and on immigration policy. Meanwhile, Gilchrest’s vote against President Bush’s “surge” plan in Iraq this year fueled some resentment in the district, which Harris has used to push his argument that it’s time for a change.

During a radio interview last Tuesday in Ocean City, Harris said, “Wayne Gilchrest is a nice guy, he’s just not a fiscal conservative.”

Later that day, Harris — who was elected to the state Senate in 1998 by knocking off the Minority Leader, a political moderate, in the Republican primary — had lunch at Taylor’s Neighborhood Restaurant with a a few influential community activists from Ocean City and nearby Ocean Pines.

As he sipped on a bowl of Maryland crab soup — naturally — Harris, who is also a practicing physician, argued that Gilchrest had lost the will and the way of the Republican Party.

“Republicans are going to elect Republicans who are consistent with our core principals,” he said. “And the readiness to reject incumbents has not been higher at least since the 1994 elections.”

Harris’ argument resonated with Coleman Bunting, a community activist in Ocean City.

“I put money in Wayne’s campaign,” Bunting said. “I supported him since he’s been in there. But supporting the Democratic line [on the surge vote] was the last straw.”

Harris said the Republican Party structure “if not officially behind me is unofficially behind me.”

Seven of the eight state Senators whose districts overlap Gilchrest’s — Pipkin being the lone exception — are backing Harris, who earned political chits throughout the 1st district when he campaigned for Republican candidates for legislative and local offices in 2006. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) has already held fundraisers for Harris, who outraised Gilchrest in the third quarter of the year and almost drew even with the Congressman in cash-on-hand totals.

But Harris is perhaps more interested in earning the support of average Eastern Shore locals — like the 30 or so members of the Delmarva Republican Women’s Club who came out to hear Harris speak Tuesday night and who have in the past served as Gilchrest’s bread-and-butter voters.

“I supported [Gilchrest] in the past … [but] I think his attitude has changed,” said Evangeline Watts, a member of the women’s club. “I think he’s becoming an extreme environmentalist. I don’t think he’s been with the president on many issues. … I will vote for [Harris] as a negative vote” against Gilchrest.

The 1st district, though based on the Eastern Shore, includes smaller portions of land west of the Chesapeake Bay. Harris, who lives outside of Baltimore, conceded last week that the challenge of his campaign has been to build his name recognition and support east of the bay.

“I don’t need to build my name recognition on the western shore, it’s pretty well-known there,” he said.

Options Abound

But some Maryland political observers said last week that Harris’ chances on the Eastern Shore were hurt when Pipkin entered the race on Thursday. Though Harris countered that Pipkin’s presence will help him because politically his Senate colleague is more in line with Gilchrest’s moderate views, it can’t be overlooked that Pipkin’s entire Senate district is located on the Eastern Shore. In fact, the newcomer to the race was quick to play up his Eastern Shore roots during his campaign kickoff at the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce.

Voters in the 1st district want “an Eastern Shore Republican who will fight for taxpayers,” Pipkin said.

Considering the timing of his announcement — with the Feb. 12 primary now less than three months away — Pipkin, a wealthy former investment banker, will likely be spending a lot of his own money on the campaign. In 2004, Pipkin spent about $2 million of his own wealth on a losing U.S. Senate bid.

When asked about his funding plans last week, Pipkin replied, “We certainly plan to raise and spend whatever it takes to get the message out.”

As Pipkin, Harris and three other Republican candidates vie to be the top primary challenger to Gilchrest, Democrats are waiting out the tough GOP primary battle to see if they have an opportunity to steal one of the state’s most conservative Congressional districts.

In all likelihood, Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil Jr. will be the Democratic nominee for the district come February, and he is the most substantial Democrat to seek the seat in a long time. In the third quarter, he raised a respectable $83,000 and reported $111,000 in cash on hand at the end of September.

At his campaign office just two miles east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge — and not far from several large Andy Harris for Congress signs that line the side of U.S. 50 — Kratovil touted his moderate political views and said his polling data has shown that after almost 18 years of Gilchrest, the 1st district is ready to at least consider voting for someone else.

“For a lot of people, the notion of just change is appealing,” he said.

Like some of the candidates in the Republican primary, Kratovil brought up Gilchrest’s broken term-limit pledge and said that though Gilchrest claims to be a citizen legislator in the mold of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” his time on Capitol Hill has changed him.

Kratovil said he tries not to concern himself too much with political strategizing beyond his own primary.

“The conventional wisdom is that I would be better off facing Harris. … [But] whether it’s Harris or Gilchrest I just think I could do a better job,” he said.

‘I’m Not a Political Animal’

On Thursday, about two hours before delivering a speech at Salisbury University about the political and military situation in Iraq and the broader Middle East, Gilchrest said he also had little desire to analyze the political dynamics of a race against Pipkin, Harris, Kratovil or anyone else.

“I’m not a political animal,” he said.

Gilchrest went on to compare being a Member of Congress to “running after a fly ball as fast as you can on a summer afternoon and enjoying catching that fly ball. But the ultimate end of the game, who has more runs or not, doesn’t play into the equation of enjoying baseball. … Talking to [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki] in Baghdad, explaining to the public the complexity of the fractured geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East is running after that fly ball.”

Besides, he said, “a lot of times I’m too tired at the end of the day to care” about politics.