Republican Andy Harris and Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. were locked in a battle that was too close to call in Maryland's 1st Congressional District this morning, while the state's seven congressional incumbents all won re-election.
Harris, an anesthesiologist from Baltimore County who has spent 10 years in the state Senate, and Kratovil, the state's attorney for Queen Anne's County, have been fighting for the seat now held by nine-term Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. With 93 percent of precincts reporting, Kratovil was leading by less than 4,000 votes of nearly 300,000 counted. Libertarian Richard James Davis, with nearly 7,000 votes, loomed as a potential spoiler in a district held by Republicans since 1990.
Shortly before 1 a.m. today, Kratovil addressed supporters at the Fisherman's Crab Deck in Grasonville.
"We may not know [the outcome] for quite a while," the 40-year-old lawyer said. "We're still looking at some precincts that are left."
At the other end of the Kent Narrows, Harris campaign manager Chris Meekins said his candidate would not be speaking to supporters gathered at the Harris Crab House and was not available for comment until Thursday.
Meekins said the Harris campaign is optimistic it will capture enough absentee ballots to prevail. "We're bucking a national trend. ... We think we're going to be victorious."
Elsewhere, Western Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett turned back what he called a "vigorous" challenge by Democrat Jennifer Dougherty, a former mayor of Frederick. The state's Democratic incumbents - Baltimore-area Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen in Montgomery County, freshman Donna Edwards in Prince George's County and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer in Southern Maryland - all coasted to victory.
But all eyes were on the 1st Congressional District, the battleground for Maryland's most competitive House race in years. Ordinarily, the district that joins the conservative Eastern Shore with Republican-leaning portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties would be considered an easy hold for the GOP. But an open seat, a difficult political environment for Republicans and lots of outside money gave the little-known Kratovil a chance at an upset.
After heavy and mostly negative advertising by the campaigns and outside groups, national analysts who earlier this year rated the district a likely Republican win reclassified it a toss-up last month.
At the polls, voters were divided. Republican Al Fidler, a retired master sergeant, said he chose the 51-year-old Harris as the more conservative of the two.
"He's a strong supporter of the right to bear arms, which is a big issue with me," the Bel Air resident said outside St. Matthew Lutheran Church. He said he also appreciated Harris' opposition to the financial bailout package approved last month by Congress and signed by President Bush.
But fellow Republican Eileen Silva voted for Kratovil. "I think everybody's hoping for change," said the Salisbury woman, who also voted at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center for Democrat Barack Obama: "I've pretty much stuck within my party, but I just wasn't feeling that this time."
Kratovil was hoping to gain enough votes on the Eastern Shore to offset the perceived advantage of Harris on the other side of the Chesapeake. He cast himself as a pro-environment moderate in the mold of Gilchrest, who was ousted by Harris in a bitterly fought Republican primary in February. After that fight, Gilchrest crossed party lines to endorse Kratovil and appear in several of his campaign commercials.
Several voters commented on the nasty tone of the campaign. A Harris television advertisement called Kratovil "clueless, liberal and very wrong;" a Kratovil spot declared: "Andy Harris. His ideas are just way out there."
In the race's closing days, Kratovil accused Harris of taking his words on the financial crisis out of context and misrepresenting his record as a prosecutor.
Waiting for returns last night at the Fisherman's Crab Deck, Frank M. Kratovil Sr. wavered between the belief that his son would win going away and worry that negative ads might have cut into his support.
"I'm sorry to say, but they might have had some impact," said the elder Kratovil, a retired judge in Prince George's County.
Fidler, the Bel Air Republican, said "both sides got nasty," but added: "That's the nature of campaigning."
The candidates raised more than $4 million in what could prove to be Maryland's most expensive race ever. Outside groups added millions more: The anti-tax Club for Growth, which helped bankroll Harris' primary victory, aired advertisements calling Kratovil "extremely liberal." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran spots depicting Harris as beholden to Wall Street, the health and insurance lobby and oil companies.
Democrats were hoping to pick up a seventh out of the state's eight House seats. Republicans were defending a district held by Gilchrest for 18 years. Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who took two-thirds of the district vote in 2006 and backed Harris during the GOP primary fight, joined him on the campaign trail in recent weeks.
Sun reporter David Kohn and Capital News Service contributed to this article.
For updated results of the race, go to baltimoresun.com/election 2008