Emboldened by recent victories in districts across the country that had long been safe bets for Republicans, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced yesterday that it would throw its financial and staffing resources behind Maryland candidate Frank Kratovil Jr.
The national support bolsters the hopes of local Democrats that they have a shot at winning in Maryland's 1st Congressional District, which has been held by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest for 18 years. Gilchrest was defeated in the Republican primary in February by state Sen. Andy Harris. Kratovil, the Democratic state's attorney in Queen Anne's County, will face Harris in the November general election.
The move by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee underscores the national party's bid to defy history by expanding its majority in the House of Representatives on top of huge gains in the 2006 election. While the Cook Political Report, a well-read analysis of U.S. elections for political insiders, is counting the Maryland race as a likely win for Republicans, Democrats point to recent races in Mississippi and Louisiana in which they captured seats held by the GOP.
"If you look at those districts, they are much more Republican-leaning than Maryland's 1st District in some respects," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "What we are seeing this year is, people really want to turn the page on the Bush-Cheney era and they want alternatives who provide a pragmatic approach."
Chris Meekins, the campaign manager for Harris, said the DCCC's involvement in the race proves that Kratovil has party connections, not that any "objective" analysis shows that he has a good chance to win. Meekins said the Harris campaign is running strong and raised more than $40,000 at a recent event with former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace.
Harris got heavy financial backing during the primary from the conservative Club for Growth, which portrayed Gilchrest as a free-spending liberal, but Meekins said the campaign has not received contributions from the group since then. Harris raised twice as much as Kratovil during the nearly three-month period through March, according to campaign finance reports. Harris received more than $400,000 in contributions, Kratovil about $190,000.
By qualifying for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue" program, Kratovil will be introduced to party supporters nationally. During the 2006 election, according to the committee, the program raised nearly $22.6 million for 56 candidates, or an average of $404,000 per campaign.
Democrats contend that Kratovil has a chance in the district - made up of the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties - because he is a centrist who could attract the votes of moderate Republicans and independents who voted for Gilchrest.
But Republicans say that the national Democratic Party has moved to the left, and that Kratovil would do the same if elected.
"They don't call it the red to purple program," Meekins said. "Those candidates are going to be lap dogs for the liberal Democrats in Washington."