Narrow victory

Democrat Kratovil claims seat after bitter congressional race as Republican Harris concedes

Election 2008

November 12, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

CENTREVILLE - Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. celebrated victory in the 1st Congressional District a week after Election Day yesterday, closing a rancorous campaign that has colored Maryland a deeper shade of blue.

The end came when Republican Baltimore County state Sen. Andy Harris called to concede in a district that was drawn to favor Republicans but went Democratic in a national wave that broke against the GOP last week.

In Maryland's most competitive race this year, Kratovil, the state's attorney for Queen Anne's County, leads Harris by 2,154 votes of the nearly 353,000 counted. About 8,000 ballots are still to be tallied.

The victory in a district that has been represented since 1991 by Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest gives Democrats seven of the state's eight House seats - for the time being, at least.

Though voter registration in the 1st District is divided almost evenly between the two parties, the district typically favors GOP candidates in statewide and national elections. And with difficult votes ahead on the financial crisis, health care, the Iraq war and other Democratic priorities, Kratovil can expect potential challengers to watch his every move.

Kratovil is mindful of the challenge ahead.

"I take it one day at a time," the 40-year-old prosecutor said yesterday. "I'm hopeful that when I get out and meet with the various leaders across the district, Republicans and Democrats, that I will be able to demonstrate to them that I will fight for them, regardless of who they are, regardless of where they're from."

Harris, 51, said last night that his candidacy ran into a national movement.

"The American people pretty clearly spoke last week with a fairly unified voice across the country, and I think they spoke with a voice in this district," he said. "I believe the pendulum will swing back in two years."

Asked whether he plans to run again for Congress, he said, "Never say never."

Matthew A. Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, credited Kratovil's success to an "extraordinary year" for Democrats and the emergence of Libertarian candidate Richard J. Davis as a spoiler. Running to the right of Harris, Davis received 8,632 votes, nearly four times the difference between the two front-runners.

Crenson said Kratovil won't be able to count on the same help in 2010.

"This is certainly an unusual event, and the state Democratic Party and Kratovil are going to have to work very hard if they expect it to be repeated two years from now," he said.

Harris, who trailed Kratovil by 915 votes after Election Day, had hoped to make up the difference when absentee and provisional ballots were opened. But when counting began last week, Kratovil's lead grew.

The conservative Harris helped make Kratovil's victory possible by defeating the moderate Gilchrest in a bitterly fought Republican primary earlier this year.

Harris was backed in the primary by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who received 67 percent of the vote in the district in 2006. Ehrlich declined yesterday to comment on the outcome and its potential impact on his political future.

Harris had also enjoyed the support of the anti-tax Club for Growth, which spent $1.8 million in the district that combines the Eastern Shore with parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

With Gilchrest out of the way, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Kratovil to its Red to Blue program for Democratic challengers in Republican districts and poured more than $2 million into the 1st District.

The candidates themselves raised more than $4 million, fueling a contentious 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."

Kratovil ran up large margins on the Eastern Shore to negate Harris' advantage on the western side of the Chesapeake. He ran as a pro-environment moderate in the mold of Gilchrest, who crossed party lines to endorse and campaign for him.

Gilchrest said yesterday that he is "very proud and pleased" that Kratovil would be representing the district. He said voters had chosen "a candidate that has tolerance and moderation, prudence and reason."

Kratovil has two years to convince constituents that they made the right decision.

"This is a historically tough district for Democrats," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Which means that he will be working from Day One to reach out to all parts of this district. He understands that people will be watching his record and holding him accountable."

Van Hollen said Kratovil would be a candidate for the committee's Frontline program, which directs money and advice to vulnerable incumbents.

"We will certainly do everything we can to support his efforts to represent his district in every way possible."

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