By andy Marso
COLLEGE PARK – It’s not that no one’s told Rob Fisher that Maryland’s 1st District congressional election is a two-man race. He’s just decided not to listen.
Fisher said he is not backing down in his quest to defeat fellow Republican Andy Harris in the Sept. 14 primary to face Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil in November. He put his money where his mouth is, giving $435,333 to his campaign through June 29.
“What the government’s been doing since this Congress and this president have taken office has outraged me enough that I can’t sit on the sidelines any longer,” Fisher said. “So I decided to put my time, effort and personal finances up for the people of the 1st District.”
Most pundits see the 1st District as a hotly contested race between Kratovil and Harris, the state senator Kratovil narrowly defeated in 2008.
The prospect of a close race has helped Kratovil and Harris, with both campaigns topping $1.3 million in funds so far this cycle, mostly from individual donors and political action committees. Neither has contributed any personal funds.
The Harris campaign seems determined to ignore Fisher and the primary. A campaign aide said Harris could not comment for this article because his schedule was too full. Campaign manager Bill Lattanzi then released a statement that ripped Kratovil but did not mention Fisher.
Kratovil’s campaign declined to comment on the Republican primary.
While Harris is the clear Republican frontrunner in fundraising, Fisher believes he has the credentials to woo conservative voters. He’s an Army veteran and a successful businessman who says he has six generations of Eastern Shore heritage.
But Fisher does not have the donations to keep up with Harris or Kratovil. So he’s been dipping into his own pocket throughout the election. After his last reported contribution — $200,000 on June 29 — he had personally provided 98 percent of his campaign funds.
Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said he was surprised Fisher was putting up that much money to run against Harris.
“It’s a lot of money for a primary race that I think he would be, at best, an outside shot at,” said Cain, noting that Harris has more name recognition after defeating Republican incumbent Wayne Gilchrest in the 2008 primary.
Fisher is convinced that self-funding a late ad blitz will help him win the primary. But it’s a gamble.
Most of his contributions came in the form of loans, but the campaign has already spent more than $200,000 and Fisher said he would spend more in coming weeks on television ads, direct mailings and consultants.
“We’re trying to get our message out to as many voters in the 1st District as possible,” Fisher said.
Fisher’s small-business experience is a central part of that message. He’s started three information technology firms and consulted for the federal government on tech-security issues.
It’s been lucrative. According to financial disclosures that candidates must file, Fisher made a $250,000 salary last year as CEO of his company, Secure Infrastructure Solutions Corp., and he holds between $1 million and $5 million in company stock.
That money has kept Fisher’s campaign going, even as he says the Republican establishment has backed Harris.
“People seem to think that because the local or Maryland state Republican Party has gotten behind Andy Harris, that he is the anointed one for the party,” Fisher said. “It’s interesting to me that during the last cycle he was touting himself as anti-establishment when he is the establishment. He’s been in Annapolis — and now wants to go to Washington — for over 12 years, and he wants to say he’s not a career politician?”
Ryan Mahoney, political director for the Maryland Republican Party, refuted the idea that the party could “anoint” anyone.
“The Fisher campaign really hasn’t come to the state party and asked for any assistance,” Mahoney said. “So, we think Andy Harris is a great candidate and we think he’ll be a great congressman. Ultimately, voters will have their say on Sept. 14.”
Fisher’s campaign manager, Demetrios Karoutsos, said he doubted the state Party would have helped Fisher. He noted that the party worked with the Republican National Committee to invoke Rule 11, which lets national Republicans support one candidate in primary races with more than one Republican.
“It’s bizarre they would say that (they’d help the Fisher campaign) given how aggressively they lobbied the RNC to invoke Rule 11 and interfere in the democratic process on behalf of a primary opponent,” Karoutsos said in a statement. “We believe voters are smart enough to decide for themselves without being told whom to vote for by the establishment.”
Regaining Kratovil’s seat would help national Republicans reach their goal of wresting back control of the House of Representatives in November. They have poured $224,950 in PAC money into Harris’ campaign to try and keep up with Kratovil, who’s received nearly $900,000 from PACs.
Jack Wilson and Richard Davis are already on the November ballot for the 1st District — Wilson as an independent and Davis as a Libertarian.
Through June, Wilson had donated about $20,000 to his campaign, a far cry from Fisher’s $435,000.
“Must be nice to have that kind of money,” Wilson said with a chuckle.
Wilson said he had heard lots of discontent toward both major political parties and that the voters were looking for outsiders in the upcoming elections. He added that the race would be decided on votes, not fundraising, and that he would not count Fisher out.
“I’m going to sit back and watch,” Wilson said. “I’ll see what kind of race (it is) and if he (Fisher) can put a hurting on Harris or not.”
Cain said it would be an uphill battle for Fisher, even with the substantial personal contributions to his campaign.
“I just don’t see how someone else can beat Andy Harris this time on the Republican side,” Cain said.