Fight in the First

May 07, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

The primary defeats in February of two of Maryland's eight U.S. House incumbents raised many eyebrows nationally. Congressional incumbents rarely lose, and when they do it's usually in the general election. State Sen. Andy Harris' 10-point victory over nine-term incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest in the 1st District's Republican primary has set up a doozy of an open-seat race between him and Democratic nominee Frank M. Kratovil Jr.

An unapologetic moderate, Mr. Gilchrest was overwhelmed by the self-described "true conservative" Mr. Harris, who hails from eastern Baltimore County in the increasingly powerful west side of the district's Chesapeake Bay area. Mr. Harris' campaign Web site features an endorsement from Colorado-based evangelical leader and "family values" advocate James Dobson, and he received significant financial backing during the primary from the anti-tax Club for Growth.

Mr. Kratovil, 39, is a strong candidate for the Democrats, who over the years have fielded a few lackluster challengers in the 1st District. The state's attorney from Queen Anne's County, Mr. Kratovil is a husband and father of four sons who could have fallen out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The r?sum? and the visuals are all there.

The wild card in the race could be Mr. Gilchrest, and there are hints that he is sympathetic toward Mr. Kratovil. Lynn Caligiuri, the Kratovil campaign's finance director, is a former campaign and finance director for Mr. Gilchrest, and the wife of Tony Caligiuri, the congressman's chief of staff.

Congressman Gilchrest has thus far not endorsed anyone, and Mr. Caligiuri confirms that his boss plans to lie low until at least Labor Day, and may remain on the sidelines throughout.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the bay, Team Harris exudes confidence, some of which derives from the fact that it has the endorsement of an ex-governor whose popularity in the district remains high.

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., still nursing a grudge with Mr. Gilchrest because his former House colleague opposed then-Governor Ehrlich's slots proposal, endorsed Mr. Harris in the GOP primary. Mr. Ehrlich's support in the district remains very strong. It includes parts of Baltimore and Harford counties that he once represented in Congress and that supported him in his gubernatorial runs.

Mr. Harris' campaign manager, Chris Meekins, says Mr. Kratovil's alliance with Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley will be "his Achilles' heel." He gleefully informed me that Mr. Kratovil had "23 pictures of himself with the governor on his Web site before the primary - and now, magically, they're gone." (Not to worry, says Mr. Meekins: He preserved those pictures before they disappeared.)

So the question is: Can a strong, Eastern Shore Democrat, running in what should be a somewhat favorable Democratic cycle - against a fractious Republican Party with an Ehrlich-backed, Baltimore-area nominee - make a contest of it?

The odds still favor Mr. Harris, a physician and pugnacious politician whose ideology and partisan affiliation give him a built-in advantage. But Mr. Harris shouldn't underestimate the home-region advantage Mr. Kratovil will have in this traditionally Shore-based district.

"The Western Shore already has seven members of Congress," says Mr. Kratovil, who is counting on his local roots to give him a boost. "The Eastern Shore should have at least one."

Understandably, both candidates are spending a lot of time on opposite sides of the bay. According to Mr. Meekins, Senator Harris spends "at least half" of his time campaigning on the Shore; Mr. Kratovil says he's already logged at least 30,000 miles in his hybrid Prius and convertible Mustang.

What's most intriguing about this contest to replace an avowed centrist is that each campaign claims the other guy is out of sync with the district.

"Overall, I think the district is a moderate district that wants people who are reasonable and moderate, and not an extremist," Mr. Kratovil told me. Similarly, Mr. Meekins calls the 1st a "John McCain-type district" in which Mr. Kratovil's liberal Democratic credentials won't sell.

The truth is both are partially correct, because whatever else disgruntled Democrats or conservative Republicans may think about Mr. Gilchrest, he really did fit the district well, both in his ideological moorings and personal comportment.

It's not clear who will win in November, but the big losers are the constituents about to say farewell to a thoughtful, decent and dedicated public servant after 18 solid years.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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