WASHINGTON – For Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, the current Republican primary campaign has been a painful one, compared with the nine he has won.
The campaign, which culminates in the Feb. 12 primary election, has featured accusations of dirty tricks, a prediction of the end of the republic, four challengers and former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s endorsement of a rival.
Gilchrest, seeking his 10th term representing Maryland’s 1st District, compared political campaigns to having irritable bowel syndrome, with some “flare ups” more severe than others.
“Some flare ups are mild and some flare ups are just like crushing glass in your bowel. This (campaign) is less mild,” he said. “With (IBS) you do what you need to do to take care of your bowel. In a political campaign you do what you can to take care of your integrity and your soul.”
This flare up could cost Gilchrest his seat, even though he has won each of the previous seven general elections by more than 30 percentage points. The last challenge to Gilchrest from his own party was in 2004 from state Sen. Richard Colburn, who Gilchrest defeated with 62 percent of the vote.
This time around the challenge comes from Joe Arminio, a doctor; state Sen. Andy Harris, R-Baltimore; Eastern Shore attorney John Leo Walter, and former Ehrlich appointee Robert Joseph Banks of Baltimore County.
Challengers say that Gilchrest is out of step with the 1st District, which encompasses the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties. They cite his willingness to break with Republicans in a district where 62 percent of voters backed President Bush in the 2004 election.
“People that vote in the Republican primary want to send a Republican to Congress,” Harris said.
Gilchrest voted with Republicans 52 percent of the time on issues that broke along party lines, according to a July study from Congressional Quarterly – the lowest percentage among House Republicans. Gilchrest has shown a passion for environmental issues in his House tenure, including introducing a bill in October to ban menhaden harvesting and championing Chesapeake Bay causes.
Gilchrest shook off the out-of-step characterization as an overgeneralization.
“I think it’s fairly absurd to categorize, restrict or confine a myriad of complex issues to one clearly misunderstood, overused political phrase,” Gilchrest said. “Certainly people deserve better than that.”
Harris, perhaps Gilchrest’s most formidable challenger thanks to backing from Ehrlich, sees it differently.
The 1st District’s constituents deserve better than “dirty tricks” from the incumbent, Harris said, referring to talk that Gilchrest’s campaign coaxed Banks into the race to dilute support for Harris.
Both Banks and Gilchrest deny the accusation.
“Robb Banks is his own man, it didn’t happen,” Banks said.
“The only things that I plant are trees, sweet corn and tomatoes,” Gilchrest said.
It was Gilchrest’s vote for a timetable on the Iraq war, one of only two Republicans to favor putting limits on the occupation, that drew Banks into the race, he said.
“This candidate would be a friend to the president in the war on terror,” Banks said. “For someone that served, I feel that vote was irresponsible.”
Harris has emerged as the strongest fund-raising threat to Gilchrest, raising $531,000 with $402,000 on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission. The total is the highest in the nation among challengers, thanks in part to Ehrlich’s endorsement.
“It’s pivotal in the fact that Gov. Ehrlich is the Republican Party in Maryland,” said Harris campaign director Chris Meekins. “It not only brings grassroots support, but also a lot of his senators and his money people will be willing to open up their checkbooks.”
The other GOP challengers either have not filed campaign finance reports, which they must do after they raise or spend $5,000, or they have raised no money. Gilchrest, meanwhile, has raised $174,134, with $414,099 on hand.
Critics say that Ehrlich’s endorsement is nothing more than a power move.
“The governor’s looking for a puppet,” Banks said. “Someone he can control and someone on his side. That’s why the governor is (taking sides) in this race.”
The former governor disagreed.
“Nobody controls Andy Harris,” Ehrlich said. He supports Harris out of friendship and comfort with Harris and professional tension between him and Gilchrest, Ehrlich said.
“(Harris) comes from my old congressional district,” Ehrlich said. “We’re friends. We share a lot of the same supporters.”
Ehrlich said that the tension with Gilchrest centers on political differences.
“The animosity is at a professional level not a personal level,” he said. “We’ve never said a cross word to each other and probably never will.”
Both Gilchrest and Ehrlich have pointed to Gilchrest’s testimony against Ehrlich’s slot machine proposal in 2004 as the origin of their disagreement.
“He went out of his way to embarrass me and my administration in 2004,” Ehrlich said.
Gilchrest mentioned the testimony when asked about his feelings on Ehrlich’s endorsement.
“I felt the same way (Ehrlich) felt when I testified against slot machines,” he said.
Other candidates notice the friction.
“The rumors you hear about them not liking each other, they’re true,” Banks said. “If Bob Ehrlich thinks that Wayne Gilchrest is the reason that his slot machine package didn’t get through, he’s sorely mistaken. That’s laughable.”
Arminio and Walter have stayed out of the clash of the titans.
Arminio paints himself as the only true Republican in the race, labeling the rest neoconservatives.
Foreign policy has put the future of America in peril, turning what used to be Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick into “more of a weak reed,” Arminio said.
“We’re waging war rather than fixing the economy,” Arminio said, noting that the declining value of the dollar could result in a North American equivalent of the Euro and signal “the end of the republic.”
“I’m not entirely certain about his views,” Walter said. “I think they’re a little different.”
A native of the Eastern Shore, Walter sees his lack of political experience as a positive.
“I’m not in the establishment,” Walter said. “Gilchrest is the status quo because he’s been there for 17 years and Harris because he’s been there since 1999.”
Ultimately, the candidates say, the debate is good for voters.
“I don’t think it’s disloyal to disagree with someone in your party,” Banks said. “I think it shows great character.”