Friday, May 23, 2008

Democrats see chance in 1st District

Kratovil could get national backing as he takes aim at a GOP seat

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil (D) will run against State Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R) in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District for a spot held by Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest for 18 years.
Democrats’ 3-0 record this year in special elections for House seats long held by Republicans has some party leaders taking another look at Maryland’s 1st Congressional District.

The race pits Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil (D) against State Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R) for a seat that Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest has held for nine terms. Gilchrest lost to Harris in the February primary.

Last week in Mississippi’s 1st District special election, Democrat Travis Childers defeated Republican Greg Davis 54 percent to 46 percent, flipping a seat the GOP had held since 1994.

Like Maryland’s 1st District, the Mississippi district had voted 60-40 for George W. Bush in 2004.

If the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gives its support to Kratovil, it would mean a cash infusion into his war chest.

‘‘It’d be very useful,” he said. ‘‘I’ve been told that as well that they’re looking at it. I’d certainly welcome the assistance.”

But Harris’ campaign manager, Christopher E. Meekins, said many differences exist between the Mississippi and Maryland districts.

For instance, unlike the Republican candidate in Mississippi, Harris has won elections in the district as a state senator.

Mississippi Republicans were unable to tie Childers to Democratic presidential candidate Barack H. Obama. But the Harris campaign can find many examples of Kratovil tying himself to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), whose popularity has fallen since his election in 2006, Meekins said.

The chicken industry on the Eastern Shore backs Harris because he would not support environmental policies that would regulate them ‘‘out of existence,” Meekins said.

To Kratovil, the key to the race is Harris, whom he believes is too conservative for the Eastern Shore.

‘‘What this district is is moderate,” Kratovil said. ‘‘We should give tax cuts to the middle class and working families, not Exxon and Mobil.”

In Mississippi, Childers’ win was the third by Democrats in districts considered heavily Republican. It has the DCCC taking another look at candidates like Kratovil in conservative districts, committee spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said.

‘‘Frank Kratovil definitely fits the district. He’s a moderate Democrat whose record shows strong leadership on crime and immigration that fits the district,” Jennings said. ‘‘In both of these cases [Mississippi and Maryland] people are looking to vote for the candidate and not the party.”

The DCCC has a cash advantage of $45 million to the Republican National Congressional Committee’s $6.7 million. The DCCC did not include Kratovil in its first round of ‘‘Red to Blue” support, for candidates it considers well-positioned to take a Republican seat, but he is in consideration for future rounds, Jennings said.

She said Gilchrest’s loss leaves moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats searching for a candidate.

‘‘With Gilchrest losing the seat, it does bring up the question is Harris too extreme for the district, and what we saw in Mississippi and Louisiana and Illinois is that the same old, tired attacks against Democrats don’t seem to be working this year, particularly with Democrats that have a more moderate approach,” Jennings said.

Gilchrest, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who became a critic of the Iraq war, had handily defeated several Democratic challengers. In 2006, he won re-election with 185,353 votes, 69 percent, to Democrat Jim Corwin’s 83,817 votes, or 31 percent.

However, in February’s primary, Harris campaigned with funding from the conservative Club for Growth and won with 31,180 votes, 43 percent, to Gilchrest’s 23,797, or 33 percent.

Democrats already saw the November race as their best chance in years to take the seat. Since then, Kratovil, a self-described moderate Democrat, has lined up the support of several former Gilchrest staffers.

Harris is not worried about the DCCC investing in Kratovil’s candidacy, Meekins said.

‘‘If the Democrats want to spend money in the 1st District, more power to them,” he said.