WASHINGTON -- With the primary election defeat of Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, Democrats nationally are taking a new look at Maryland's 1st Congressional District, a GOP stronghold they have long considered beyond their reach - until now.
House Democratic leaders, flush with cash after a record fundraising year in 2007, say the victory this month by conservative state Sen. Andy Harris in the bitterly fought Republican primary has given them their best chance in years to recapture a district they characterize as politically moderate.
For Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the Eastern Shore prosecutor who won the Democratic primary, that's likely to mean an influx of money, advice and appearances by top party officials in the months leading up to the November election.
"This is a seat I would have described as an uphill battle," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It has now become a jump ball."
Republicans dismiss such talk as wishful thinking. While Democrats enjoy a slight edge in voter registration, the district - which includes the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties - has long supported Republican candidates, voting 62 percent for President Bush in 2004 and 68 percent for Gilchrest in 2006.
Harris raised more than four times as much money during the primary campaign as Kratovil, gained more raw votes and won by a wider margin. The National Republican Congressional Committee has released an internal poll showing Harris with a 15-point lead over Kratovil.
"The numbers speak for themselves," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. "All of the spin in the world will not change the facts. ... This is a Republican stronghold that will perform well, especially in a presidential election year."
But neutral observers are taking notice. The Cook Political Report rates the 1st District as "Republican plus 10," meaning it votes 10 percentage points to the right of the national average in presidential elections. But after Gilchrest's ouster, the independent newsletter added the district to its list of races to watch, describing it as "not considered competitive at this point," but having "the potential to become engaged."
"Democrats know they have to peel a substantial number of Gilchrest supporters away from Harris' total in November to have a shot at winning this district," said David Wasserman, the Report's House editor. "And they feel confident that there's sufficient ill will from the primary to propel them into competitiveness.
"But Republicans are at an advantage because this primary was so early in the process. The nine-month window for the Republicans to kiss and make up and get behind Andy Harris is really beneficial to them."
One advantage for the Democrats: money. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $35.5 million cash on hand at the end of January to spend where it wishes, to the National Republican Congressional Committee's $6.4 million.
Kratovil and the DCCC are planning to meet to discuss the support the organization can offer. Van Hollen says Kratovil is a prospect for the committee's Red to Blue program, which funnels cash and advice to Democratic challengers running in traditionally Republican districts - a key to the party's takeover of Congress in the 2006 elections.
"This is a moderate district," Van Hollen said. "Wayne Gilchrest was a moderate, and in that sense, reflected the political temperament of the 1st. Now you have a situation where clearly the Democratic candidate has that moderate political profile, whereas the Republican candidate, he reflects the right-wing constituency that elected him in a primary."
Responded Harris: "The negative campaign against me has obviously already started. As liberal as Chris Van Hollen is, everything to the right of him looks extreme."
Harris, 51, calls himself a "mainstream, conservative Republican" - the kind of candidate the district has long supported, as demonstrated by his 12-point victory over Gilchrest. He says he has proved his crossover appeal by winning three terms in a state Senate district where Democrats hold a clear majority.
"I think it's fairly mainstream to call for more efficient government, lower taxes and less government spending," Harris said. "And I think the people of the 1st Congressional District will agree with that."
A physician, Harris says he is looking forward to a debate on free-market approaches to lowering health care costs for businesses and individuals, and to drawing distinctions between Republican and Democratic positions on immigration.
Kratovil, 39, says he is more in touch than Harris with the concerns of the voters.