By Richard Abdill and Jon Aerts
KENT ISLAND – State Sen. Andy Harris made this round look easy — toppling freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil in their rematch for Maryland’s 1st Congressional District.
Kratovil spoke to his supporters at the Crab Deck restaurant a little before 11 p.m., saying that he was “consistently overwhelmed” by his supporters and praised the electoral process.
“The battles we have we fight at the ballot box and not on the battlefield.”
With 77 percent of the vote in, Harris was leading Kratovil 54 to 42 percent. The Washington Post called the race for Harris. Last time around, in 2008, it took a week before the race between the two was official.
Frank Kratovil Sr., 77, from the Crab Deck restaurant, said he was “apprehensive” most of the night.
Just a half mile away at Harris Crab House, Kathryn Harris, the candidate’s niece and a nurse, said she was “very confident” that her uncle would pull it off this time.
“He will use his platform as a doctor to affect change in Congress,” she said.
But perhaps the biggest deciding factor in the race may be the mood of the electorate. In 2008, Kratovil was helped by enthusiasm for President Obama, although Sen. John McCain won the district. This time, it’s a rising tide of Republicanism and a call for change that is lifting Harris.
“It’s time to take the trash out,” said Bernie Parkinson, 62, a retired firefighter and registered Democrat who voted for Harris. “Everybody wants change” this year.
That’s the feeling, too, of Charles Dyes, a 55-year-old Dorchester businessman at the Harris party.
“Politicians are playing puppets with us all,” he said. “We need change.” And he said that Kratovil has been unresponsive.
“Where’s (Kratovil) been? He’s been a ghost.”
Even House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer in Maryland’s 5th District got a taste of the mood. Republican Charles Lollar was close enough after early results were in that it was the only other federal race in Maryland not called almost immediately. Hoyer went on to beat Lollar.
Marcella Drain, 31, who voted on Kent Island in the 1st District Tuesday, demonstrated the 1st District’s swing nature. She voted for Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich, and also for Kratovil.
“What I like about him is he’s local,” she said of Kratovil, the former Queen Anne’s County state’s attorney. “I like his history and track record.”
Kratovil and Harris first butted heads in 2008, when Harris unseated nine-term incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the Republican primary.
That time around, the general election was so close it took a week for Harris to concede. Ultimately, 360,480 votes were cast in District 1 and official results left Kratovil the winner by 2,852 votes, or a .8 percent margin. On election night, however, Kratovil led by just 915 votes.
The lead-up to this year’s race has indicated it could be just as close: an Oct. 6 poll published by The Hill and conducted by Penn Schoen Berland had the candidates statistically tied; another, an automated poll from Monmouth University two weeks later, had Harris ahead 53 percent to 42 percent. On Oct. 25, the Baltimore Sun released yet another poll, this one with the two candidates tied at 40 percent.
The Washington Post and other media outlets already called the U.S. Senate race for Democratic incumbent Barbara Mikulski, and all other congressional incumbents except the 1st District and 5th District, where House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was wrangling with tea party leading light and Republican Charles Lollar.
By far the closest House contest in the state, District 1 had more spending than the rest of the races combined: while final tallies won’t come in until early next month, Federal Election Commission reports show the two candidates spent a combined $1.3 million between Aug. 26 and the end of September. The other House races combined spent less than half a million dollars.
More than $1.1 million of Kratovil and Harris’s spending has gone into several heated television spots in which each accused the other of dishonesty in ways that may have been dishonest themselves.
Kratovil accused Harris in an ad of supporting a 23 percent sales tax, a mischaracterization of a bullet point on Harris’s website saying he “can support either the flat tax or the fair tax.” Harris demanded Kratovil stop running the ad and said Kratovil cited a report that never mentioned the fair tax. The report, compiled by a committee commissioned by President George W. Bush, mentions the fair and flat tax programs more than 30 times.
Harris mirrored the strategy of many Republican challengers nationwide, attacking Kratovil’s association with the current Democratic administration by pointing to his votes in favor of the economic stimulus and the cap-and-trade energy bill. The Harris campaign also put out a statement attacking Kratovil for a recent fundraiser headlined by Vice President Joe Biden.
Kratovil has banked on his independence, a necessity in his deeply Republican district. He pointed to votes against the final version of the health care bill and the 2010 budget, as well as endorsements from Chambers of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, which supported Harris in 2008.
Harris, like Kratovil, did get an A rating from the NRA and said he didn’t get the endorsement because groups tend to support incumbents. Harris did once again get the endorsement of the Gun Owners of America.
The Republican Party also considered Harris a rising star, with National Committee Chairman Michael Steele bringing his “Fire Pelosi” (for getting rid of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) to Harris’ campaign headquarters in the final weekend before the vote.
In 2008, the Obama wave didn’t quite reach the Eastern Shore. Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain won the 1st District by 19 points, but Harris still lost to a Democrat. A win for him this time around would signal just how much discontent there is with Democratic leadership, even with those who have not voted the party line on key votes.