Maryland Delegates Pan Gilchrest’s Move

Posted September 2, 2008 at 7:05pm

Maryland’s Republican delegation got some disappointing news from back home on the second day of the GOP convention Tuesday when outgoing Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest endorsed Democrat Frank Kratovil in the race to fill his Eastern Shore seat.

Gilchrest lost to state Sen. Andy Harris in a bitter Republican primary earlier this year, and several of his former top staffers had already gone over to Kratovil’s camp. But the move by the moderate Republican to cross party lines and formally endorse Kratovil roiled some Maryland delegates and simply saddened others.

“I think this makes us even more committed to defeating Kratovil. … This proves that [Gilchrest] is not dependable,” said delegate Greg Seltzer, echoing a line of attack Harris had used in the primary.

In that crowded contest, Harris said that over Gilchrest’s nine terms in Congress he had strayed too far from the Republican base and found himself on the wrong side of major issues such as the war in Iraq. Harris won the February primary with 43 percent of the vote to Gilchrest’s 33 percent.

Don Murphy, a former state legislator and Maryland delegation chairman who was co-chairman of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 presidential campaign in the Free State with Gilchrest, said that despite the Congressman’s endorsement announcement on Tuesday, he didn’t bear any animosity toward Gilchrest.

“Wayne has been a great Representative and I’m disappointed because none of that will be remembered now by the party establishment,” Murphy said.

After the endorsement announcement was made, the Harris camp was quick to link Gilchrest with some of the most high-profile liberal Democrats.

“Kratovil has also received endorsements from liberals” such as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a Harris statement said. “This support shows he is clearly out of touch with the values of the district.”

Gilchrest said in a conference call Tuesday with Kratovil that he’s not worried about what his endorsement will mean to his legacy in the Republican Party.

“I am fully aware of the ramifications of my votes and actions,” Gilchrest said. “This is not about my career in Washington. This is about Frank Kratovil and who will best represent the 1st district.”

Gilchrest said he made his decision on principle and not politics. He cited Kratovil’s independence as a major reason why he decided to endorse the Queen Anne County state’s attorney.

Not long after he lost his nasty primary race in February, Gilchrest hinted that he might not endorse Harris. He said Tuesday that his decision to back Kratovil “should come as no surprise” to Republicans in the 1st district and Washington. Asked whether he had talked to Harris about the endorsement decision, Gilchrest said, “I have known and talked to Andy Harris for 10 years and we disagree on almost everything.”

Tuesday’s endorsement was the capstone of the Kratovil campaign’s efforts since the primary to be viewed as the heir to Gilchrest’s moderate legacy, and the Congressman’s endorsement could prove to be pivotal in a district that Democrats hope to pick off.

Kratovil called Gilchrest’s support “a breath of fresh air with all the complaints people have with partisanship in Washington.”

He also sought to further emphasize his moderate views by criticizing both Republicans and Democrats for allowing the “extreme” elements of their parties to dominate and shape party views and debate.

“It isn’t just the Republican Party that has strayed from mainstream values. I think the same can be said of the Democratic Party,” Kratovil said.

The Kratovil campaign quickly sought to capitalize on Gilchrest’s endorsement Tuesday by releasing a new television ad featuring Gilchrest set to run district-wide. And the DCCC, which is targeting the 1st district seat as part of its “Red to Blue” fundraising and infrastructure program, also was quick to say that Gilchrest’s endorsement is a sign that the party can play in a once solidly Republican district.

“It is only further evidence that Frank Kratovil’s commitment to protecting Maryland’s Eastern Shore and restoring fiscal responsibility to Washington is resonating, not only with Democrats, but also with Republican and independents,” DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James said.

But even with Gilchrest’s support, picking up the 1st district is still considered an uphill battle for Democrats.

The sprawling 3,700-square-mile district is a conservative bastion that includes all of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and arms that run into sections of the Western Shore. It is one of only two districts in the state to be represented by a Republican in the House. President Bush won the district by 17 points in 2000 and 26 points in 2004.

Harris, who hails from Baltimore County, was successful during the primary in making inroads with local officials and residents in Gilchrest’s base in the Eastern Shore.

Maryland delegate and Eastern Shore resident Charles Peck said after the GOP delegation breakfast Tuesday morning that while he feels leery about the massive amount of support Harris received from the national anti-tax group the Club for Growth during the primary, “I have not seen him as a threat to normal Eastern Shore people.”

Since February, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Harris’ campaign have released polls indicating that the general election will not be competitive, but the national party also appears to be taking the race seriously by sending party bigwigs to raise money for Harris.

Last week, Harris, who essentially started from scratch on the fundraising front after the costly primary, announced that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) would headline a fundraiser for him in Baltimore on Sept. 12.

As of the end of June, Harris reported $609,000 in cash on hand, a total that included $532,000 raised during the second quarter and a $100,000 personal loan that Harris made to his campaign on the last day of the June reporting period. Kratovil reported $454,000 in cash on hand and $376,000 raised between April and June.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who came in third in the February Republican primary and has since backed Harris, said that the general election is Harris’ to lose.

“It’s a Republican seat,” Pipkin said. “If Andy survived the primary, he should be fine in the general” even if Kratovil now has Gilchrest’s support.

Murphy predicted that come November, Gilchrest’s endorsement of Kratovil probably wouldn’t mean too much at the voting booth.

“If Wayne had that much influence … he wouldn’t have lost the primary,” Murphy said.