GOP outsider bucks party in race for Maryland's 1st District

Self-funded candidate could complicate Republican efforts to unseat Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil

August 11, 2010|By Paul West, The Baltimore Sun

For more than a year, Republicans have been carefully plotting the ouster of Rep. Frank Kratovil of Maryland, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country.

Party strategists never expected to contend with Rob Fisher, however. An upstart candidate with an outsider message, the conservative businessman has emerged from obscurity, thanks to the most extensive TV ad drive of any Marylander running for Congress.

"We need to change what's happening Washington," Fisher said in an interview. "The only way we can do that is by changing the kinds of people we send to Washington."

His anti-establishment run is complicating the party's plan to give Republican state Sen. Andrew Harris of Baltimore County another shot at Kratovil. Since losing narrowly to the Democrat two years ago, Harris received coaching from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party's House campaign arm, and has been regarded as the favorite to become the Republican nominee again.

But Fisher hopes to rip up that blueprint by capitalizing on voter anger in a volatile election season.

He dismisses Harris, a veteran state legislator, as a "career politician" with little to show for his 12 years in Annapolis. And he questions Harris' ability to unseat the Democratic incumbent in Maryland's easternmost congressional district.

In the 2008 election, as the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin was carrying the district by an 18-point landslide, Harris became the first Republican nominee to lose there since the early 1990s.

"That says something about the candidate," remarked Fisher, who stands ramrod straight and is still learning to sound less stiff when he talks.

His maiden venture into politics has brought him a measure of celebrity, thanks to $175,000 in TV ads he paid for himself. But his campaign has not gone entirely smoothly. He remains light on policy specifics and has been attacked over his marital history, voting record and residency.

In the interview, Fisher proudly described himself as a Reagan Republican, adding: "My first vote was for Ronald Reagan."

When it was pointed out that he was only 17 the last time Reagan's name was on a ballot, in 1984, he backed away and said he "thinks" he voted for Reagan.

"It's been so long ago," Fisher said.

He says the "entrepreneurial spirit" that made him rich is what's needed now in Washington and in the 1st District, which has suffered some of the worst joblessness in the state. He says he would lure technology jobs to the Eastern Shore, which, he notes, is safely outside the Washington, D.C., "blast zone" in the event of an attack.

Fisher made his money as a federal government contractor, most recently in cybersecurity, an area that has drawn intense criticism for the sort of bloated spending Fisher says he wants to stop. Fisher sees no contradiction, defending his company's work, much of which he says is classified, as vital to national security.

As he travels the district, which takes in both shores of the Chesapeake Bay, including portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, he's appealing for support from conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists with a promise to "put the Constitution first" and "represent the district the way our founding fathers envisioned."

Like many voters, Fisher said he's "outraged. And I just can't sit on the sidelines any longer."

He is unapologetic about his sudden interest in electoral politics. The 43-year-old never gave a dime to a campaign until this spring, when he started investing in his own candidacy (Before that, he'd been "extremely busy," he explained).

Fisher remains a decided underdog, but he sees the reaction to his candidacy as an indication that some insiders consider him a factor in next month's primary.

He says the Republican Party — which invoked an obscure internal procedure permitting it to spend money on Harris' campaign ahead of the primary — recently deleted Fisher's campaign from the state party website; it was restored after he protested.

"Obviously, they see a real threat in Rob Fisher joining the race," he said.

Maryland Republican Party spokesman Ryan Mahoney said that Fisher was accidentally dropped during a website upgrade and that officials fixed the error as soon as it was brought to their attention.

A July 27 report on Red Maryland, a conservative blog, raised questions about the depth of Fisher's ties to the state. A Fisher campaign spokesman confirms that he has not voted in Maryland since 1996. Earlier, Fisher denied another online report, based on court papers from a 1991 divorce case, which claimed he had used illegal drugs and physically abused his first wife.

Fisher says Republican rival Harris is "slinging mud" in an effort to block his challenge.

"I have seen Andy Harris' track record," said Fisher, "so I expected it."

Harris campaign manager Bill Lattanzi rejected the accusation, saying it is "not true" his candidate was behind any attacks on Fisher.

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