WASHINGTON – State Sen. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, and Frank Kratovil, the Democratic state’s attorney for Queen Anne’s County, are in a dead heat for the politically moderate 1st District in the closest Maryland Congressional race this year.
Harris, a Johns Hopkins anesthesiologist, defeated Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, in the Republican primary. That ouster stimulated the first serious Democratic challenge since Gilchrest was elected in 1990.
Harris argues that voters want a more conservative candidate — a point evidenced by his primary victory. Kratovil says he’ll continue Gilchrest’s moderate platforms. However, both have struggled to convince voters of how they would lead the insular district, where residents say local issues like the environment and the traditional agriculture industry are top priorities, but don’t fit neatly on one side of the party line.
Harris, who has raised about $1.2 million more than Kratovil and led in early polls, has sought to paint himself as an “independent voice” and a “maverick” Republican in debates and television advertisements, while characterizing Kratovil as too liberal for the district.
Meanwhile Kratovil says he can work with people from both sides of the aisle, and would represent the district from the center.
“The reason that the Democrat runs a bipartisan race in that election is (a) they’re running to fill Wayne Gilchrest’s seat, and (b) that’s a very Republican district,” said Trevor Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland professor of government. A Republican would aspire to be a maverick to distance himself from the unpopular president, he said.
Highlighting that point, Harris campaign manager Chris Meekins said in a recent interview, “If he believes something’s against the best interest of his district, he’s going to vote against it, whether he’s alone or has 200 people with him.”
The campaign points to Senate votes against the Republican Party. In many such dissents, Harris stood alone or with a handful of other senators against Republican colleagues and Democrats, but has rarely stood up to the party to help achieve consensus.
As a newer candidate, first elected state’s attorney in 2003, Kratovil has benefited from at least one bipartisan partnership with an old hand, Gilchrest, who endorsed the Democrat in September.
That move changed the dynamic of the race, said Kratovil spokesman Kevin Lawlor.
In fact, the most recent polls show a much closer race, some even placing Kratovil in the lead. The Pindell Report from Politicker.com, which rates the competitiveness of elections, moved the race from the 42nd most competitive last week to the 25th on Tuesday.
Without the endorsement, “We’d have needed more time to get out and tell people about Frank,” he said. “What Wayne Gilchrest does is he gives Republicans permission to vote for Frank Kratovil.”
Lawlor called Harris an ideologue and said Kratovil would follow Gilchrest’s moderate tradition of considering each issue individually, rather than jumping to conclusions based on the party line. In a conservative district, that message may have been hard for a Democrat to spread without support from a familiar face like Gilchrest, he said.
Kratovil’s fundraising numbers also soared after Gilchrest’s endorsement, surpassing Harris in the third quarter by about $40,000. Lawlor says the contributions continue to pour in.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by 6,000, but voters tend to favor conservative candidates. In addition to Gilchrest’s nine-term dominance, President Bush did well in these counties in 2004 while losing Maryland as a whole.
Some observers, however, speculate that the economic crisis may be doing for Kratovil what it’s done for Democrats across the country, making even conservative voters receptive to more liberal candidates.
“It’s a fairly conservative area, and people are not ready for the government to step in and take over the running of businesses, but a lot of people here realize that if Wall Street goes away, everyone suffers,” said Brad Bellacicco, the executive director of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce.
The Harris camp remains confident, however.
“I think the fundamentals remain the same, and there’s two different philosophies about how you move forward,” said Meekins. “We’ve been highlighting those differences over the past few months since we knew Frank Kratovil was the nominee. He thinks raising taxes is the way to get us out of this economic mess, and we disagree.”