Friday, Feb. 22, 2008

Dems ready to spend big on Kratovil

Van Hollen, Hoyer say District 1 seat is in play

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ANNAPOLIS — The biggest winner of last week’s 1st Congressional District Republican primary may have been a Democrat.

National party leaders indicated this week that they are eager to support Democratic nominee Frank M. Kratovil Jr. in his race against Andrew P. Harris, who defeated incumbent U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest and fellow state Sen. E.J. Pipkin in the Republican primary.

‘‘That’s a congressional district that is now very much on our radar screen,” U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen said in an interview on Monday. ‘‘It’s moved from a district that we would have placed in the uphill battle category to a district that is in the very competitive category.”

As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Van Hollen (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington is charged with maintaining and expanding the party’s ranks in the House of Representatives. And he has high hopes for Kratovil, a second-term state’s attorney from Queen Anne’s County.

Since entering the race last June, Kratovil has sought to carve out a middle-of-the-road platform that keys on his experience as a prosecutor, a strong border security plan and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.

‘‘It’s a jump ball now, and we have a candidate in Frank Kratovil who really reflects the values and priorities of that district,” Van Hollen said. ‘‘He’s a moderate in a district that has got a very moderate character.”

Another leading national Democrat agrees that Kratovil can leverage his centrist stance into a winning campaign.

‘‘I don’t see this as a hard-line district,” said U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Dist. 5) of Mechanicsville. The district has many ‘‘pragmatic, commonsense people. I don’t think they’re looking for swings of right or left, and Frank Kratovil represents that.”

Hoyer said he plans to support Kratovil with money from his personal campaign treasury and his political action committee, AmeriPAC, which he uses to support Democratic candidates.

Kratovil, who was part of a conference call on Tuesday with Hoyer and other Democratic candidates, said it signals the national party’s commitment to his campaign. ‘‘I think it’s clear that my district is going to be ... targeted.”

Van Hollen used his appearance on C-SPAN’s ‘‘Newsmakers” this week to highlight Kratovil’s candidacy as an example of possible Democratic pick-ups in Congress.

Harris (R-Dist. 7) of Cockeysville is ‘‘a very right-wing idealogue,” whereas Kratovil can capture much of the support Gilchrist has enjoyed for years, he said.

But Harris, who won the primary with support from the conservative Club for Growth, said Democrats are making a poor investment if they pour money into the 1st District.

‘‘The 1st Congressional District was drawn by Democrats to elect Republicans,” he said. ‘‘There is no amount of money they can put in that race that can change the demographics and the voting history of the 1st Congressional District.”

Former governor Parris N. Glendening (D) said Democrats must counter the Club for Growth’s investment in Harris’ campaign to give Kratovil a chance.

‘‘They’ll have to step up, there’s no question about that,” he said.

Gilchrest has not yet made an endorsement in the race; his involvement could be a key. Kratovil has not directly asked for his support, but he said he would be thrilled if it was offered.

Either way, Capitol Hill observers consider the seat a long shot for Democrats.

‘‘There are probably 50 better opportunities in the House for the DCCC before the 1st District of Maryland,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which monitors congressional races.

Maryland’s strength in the House may give Kratovil more publicity and opportunities for appearances by top party officials, but it’s not likely to determine how much the DCCC sinks into the race.

‘‘There could be an advantage because Van Hollen is more familiar with the district than something halfway across the country, but this is a numbers game,” Gonzales said. ‘‘Democrats are going to be looking for the best opportunities to invest their money, and proximity to the chairman falls way down on the list.”

Several top Maryland Democrats also appear likely to lend support. Gov. Martin O’Malley and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler hosted fundraisers late last year, and Kratovil is well-respected within state party circles.

The state Democratic Party held a news conference this week to highlight the candidacies of Kratovil, 4th District nominee Donna F. Edwards of Fort Washington and 6th District nominee Jennifer P. Dougherty of Frederick, who faces perhaps the toughest battle in her race against eight-term U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown.

State party chairman Michael Cryor declined to say whether he believed Kratovil or Dougherty, the former mayor of Frederick, had a better chance to win their respective elections.

‘‘We’re going to see to it as best we can that all our candidates are not without support,” he said, noting that they will have discussions with the national party about what commitments can be made.