Gilchrest Seat No Shore Thing for GOP

Posted February 13, 2008 at 5:22pm

After fending off repeated attempts to end his political career, moderate Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) on Tuesday finally succumbed to a primary challenge from his right in Maryland’s 1st district.

But the GOP primary triumph of conservative state Sen. Andy Harris could be short-lived — even in a Republican stronghold — if the Democratic nominee, Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil, can pick up moderates and take advantage of his natural geographic strengths and the lingering bitterness from the nasty GOP primary.

It’s an uphill battle, but if Democrats ever had a shot to steal the 1st district, this November is the time, and the tough-on-crime, tough-on-immigration Kratovil appears to be a candidate with potential.

Democrats “have a good candidate, probably a better candidate that they’ve had in a number of years. And they are not running against an incumbent who a lot of Democrats voted for in the general election,” said Harry Basehart, co-director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury University. “The Democrats have to be aware that if they don’t win it now they are never going to win it.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee moved quickly Wednesday to diffuse the notion that the district could be even remotely competitive in the fall.

“This is a conservative district that votes Republican, [former Republican Gov.] Bob Ehrlich is beloved here, a healthy majority have an unfavorable opinion of [Democratic Gov.] Martin O’Malley and today Republicans have a 15-point edge on the generic ballot,” Republican pollster Hans Kaiser of Moore Information said in an NRCC strategy memo. “Andy Harris is going to Congress.”

Kratovil, who defeated three other Democrats in Tuesday’s primary, already had the backing of O’Malley and other top Democrats, along with some powerful local endorsers such as the Maryland AFL-CIO. But his main weakness against Harris appears to be on the financial front and in name recognition.

Harris raised more than four times the amount of money that Kratovil brought in for his primary campaign, and that’s not including the massive amount of money that the powerful anti-tax group Club for Growth spent promoting Harris — and tearing down Gilchrest — in various advertisements.

So a key factor in this race will be if the national Democratic Party decides to make the 1st district race a priority.

“This seat has the potential to be competitive, and we are watching it closely,” said Kyra Jennings, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Frank Kratovil’s values are in line with 1st district voters, and he would be a strong, moderate voice for change in Congress.”

Harris has had a well-oiled campaign machine in place for nine months and is a well-known state Senator from the suburbs of Baltimore, where a few counties in the far-flung 1st district lie.

But as Basehart pointed out, the fact that Harris lives west of the Chesapeake Bay could be used against him on Election Day.

“There’s always been a very strong feeling that the 1st district is an Eastern Shore district,” Basehart said.

It remains to be seen how badly voters will want to keep their Member of Congress grounded on the Eastern Shore, but if Kratovil also can paint himself as a moderate who is not too different from Gilchrest, he may be able to steal a good portion of the 33 percent of the Republicans who voted for the Congressman in his losing primary fight.

Kratovil went right to work on that strategy on Wednesday.

“Andy Harris is out of the mainstream in terms of his views,” Kratovil said in an interview. “There’s no question I’m more in line with Wayne Gilchrest than Andy Harris [is].”

Kratovil added that the bitterness of the Republican primary, for which Harris and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R) received much of the blame, also is not likely to be forgotten soon by voters.

Pipkin, who took 21 percent of the Republican primary vote, said throughout the campaign that Harris was too conservative to win the general election. Gilchrest has not conceded, saying he prefers to wait until provisional and absentee ballots are counted, a process that isn’t likely to be completed until next week.

When now-Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) defeated then-Rep. Joe Schwarz (R) in 2006 with the Club for Growth’s help, Schwarz — a moderate in Gilchrest’s mold — refused to endorse Walberg in the general election. Wahlberg won that election narrowly against a little-known and underfunded Democrat. Could history repeat itself in Maryland?

“People that supported [Gilchrest and Pipkin] are certainly going to remember those ads and the attack ads and the personal nature of” the primary, Kratovil said.