1st District race may take week to settle

At least 25,000 absentee ballots still to be counted in dead-heat House battle between Harris, Kratovil

Election 2008

November 06, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

With tens of thousands of ballots yet to be counted, the bitterly fought House race between Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. and Republican Andy Harris is unlikely to be settled before the end of next week, state officials said yesterday.

Kratovil, the state's attorney for Queen Anne's County, led Harris, a state senator from Cockeysville, by fewer than 1,000 of the more than 329,000 votes cast Tuesday in the contest for the seat now held by longtime Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

The tally doesn't include the more than 25,000 absentee ballots that elections officials are to begin counting today. That process is scheduled to continue through Nov. 14. An unknown number of provisional ballots are to be counted beginning next week.

Even in a Democratic year, a Kratovil win would be an upset in the district that combines the conservative Eastern Shore with Republican-leaning portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties. Gilchrest, a moderate Republican, was elected to nine terms before the conservative Harris stunned him in a hotly contested GOP primary this year.

Kratovil and Harris remained out of public view yesterday while waiting for the count to begin. Both campaigns were planning to send representatives to the district's county boards of elections today to keep an eye on the proceedings.

"Clearly, we won yesterday in the voting places," Kratovil spokesman Kevin Lawlor said. "We hope the same trend, the same will of the voters, will happen in the absentee ballots. There's no reason to believe that it won't."

Harris campaign manager Chris Meekins expressed a similar confidence.

"With 25,000 votes outstanding and only being down 915, this is a very good place to be," he said.

Kratovil led Harris with 160,915 votes to 160,000 in unofficial results posted online yesterday by the State Board of Elections. Libertarian candidate Richard James Davis loomed as a spoiler with 7,927 votes; 277 ballots were cast for write-in candidates.

According to the state board, 32,535 absentee ballots had been requested and 25,539 returned to the county boards through Tuesday. They include ballots requested by members of the military and other Marylanders living overseas.

Of the returned ballots, 11,371 came from Democrats, 10,924 from Republicans and 3,244 from independents and others. Three out of five, meanwhile, came from the Eastern Shore - a ratio that could favor Kratovil, a Stevensville resident who currently leads in all nine counties on that side of the Chesapeake. Harris, who represents Baltimore County in the state Senate, leads in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Meekins predicted the absentee ballots would favor Harris. The GOP traditionally has pushed absentee voting; Meekins pointed to several apparent Democratic victories in the state legislative races two years ago that were pulled out by Republicans after absentee voters were included.

Absentee ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday to be counted. The process will be kept open through next week to allow time for ballots to arrive at the county boards.

Elections manager Donna Duncan said the state board would post a running tally of the district vote on its Web site.

That the race would be so close seemed unlikely nine months ago, when Harris stormed into the general election with an 11-percentage point primary win over Gilchrest. Republicans circulated an internal poll showing Harris with a 15-point lead over Kratovil.

But an open seat, a toxic political environment for the GOP and lots of outside money gave Kratovil an opening. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added the 40-year-old prosecutor to its Red to Blue program, which looks to make inroads in traditional Republican strongholds, and poured $1.3 million into the district.

The anti-tax Club for Growth spent $1.8 million backing Harris. The 51-year-old anesthesiologist also enjoyed the endorsement of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who said the district deserved a representative who reflected its conservatism.

Gilchrest crossed party lines to endorse Kratovil.

As the race tightened - public and private polls in the weeks before the election showed a statistical dead heat - the advertising grew nastier. Amid the charges and counter-charges, a Harris television advertisement called Kratovil "clueless, liberal and very wrong;" a Kratovil spot declared: "Andy Harris. His ideas are just way out there."

At the polls Tuesday, voters expressed disappointment in the sniping.

In separate statements yesterday, the candidates struck a more neutral tone. Kratovil said the backing of Republicans, Democrats and independents had been "heartwarming."

"That support carried me to a clear lead in this election at the polling places even as John McCain carried our district by a significant margin," he said. "The most important thing right now is to make sure all remaining votes are counted."

Harris expressed "complete confidence in our election system."

"My parents immigrated to the United States to flee communism with the hope of a better life for themselves and their children," he said. "Their experience taught me early on to believe in and trust the democratic process in America, where we have a fair and just system of laws in place to make sure every vote cast is counted fairly."

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