Democrat in Danger

February 16, 2010

Frank Kratovil is perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat in the House of Representatives. The 41-year-old freshman won Maryland’s First Congressional District by just 1 percentage point in 2008. But it’s a district that has historically tended red, and its citizens are far less enamored of Kratovil a year later. He faced a summer of discontent over health care reform last year. One event in July garnered national attention after a protestor hung Kratovil in effigy. At a town hall in August, one of his constituents speaking about health care told him, “We don’t want your help.” The audience booed when the congressman tried to justify his support for cap and trade.

Maryland’s First District lies on the Eastern Shore, a nine-county strip of land wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. But as a result of gerrymandering, bits of the district stretch west of the bay into the more urban Harford, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore counties. MD-1 voters sent a Republican to Congress from 1990 to 2008. In 2008, McCain won it 58 percent to 40 percent; in 2004, Bush beat Kerry by a 26-point margin. Kratovil campaigned as a Blue Dog Democrat and, with a Democratic wave nationwide, slipped through by 3,000 votes.

Today, though, it “is a totally different political environment,” says a spokesman at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) who monitors the district, “Kratovil having completely broken his promises to be a moderate Democrat.” The Cook Political Report is already rating the race a tossup. “This is one of our top pickup opportunities in the country,” the NRCC spokesman said.

The 2010 campaign in MD-1 is a crucial test for the GOP and a bellwether of the party’s attempt to regain control of the House.Â

The likely GOP challenger is Andy Harris, a state senator, fiscal conservative, and tea party regular. He is also the candidate who narrowly lost to Kratovil in 2008. Kratovil won the seat thanks not just to the Democratic electoral trend but also to a messy Republican primary. Harris had challenged the incumbent, Wayne Gilchrest. Harris had a record of endorsing low taxes and restrained government spending during 12 years in the state senate, while Gilchrest had been moving further and further left over his nine terms. Republican voters, says Harris, were upset that Gilchrest had “left the mainstream of the party.” Harris won the primary by 10 percentage points—43 to 33—and Gilchrest promptly endorsed Kratovil.

But that was 2008. The political mood has shifted, and Kratovil has a record. Rather than an independent-minded Blue Dog, he has voted with his party 84 percent of the time. Nor has he pursued the fiscally conservative policies the Blue Dogs favor. He voted in favor of the stimulus, is on record supporting the public option for health care though he voted against the House version of the health care bill in the end and endorsed cap and trade. Back in June, on the day before cap and trade was brought to a vote, The Hill reported that Kratovil was seen on the House floor “shaking his head no as Pelosi buttonholed him.” The next day, he voted for cap and trade.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee still paints him as a nonpartisan Blue Dog. “Congressman Kratovil has been an independent voice for his district. .??.??. He has focused his efforts on reining in spending and reducing the deficit, and that’s a record he’s going to stand by during this year’s campaign,” a spokesman said.

But Harris says that he’s not just running against Kratovil, but also Nancy Pelosi and her ideologically driven policies. “Kratovil sees government as a solution to our problems .??.??. but the people want Reagan-style conservatism,” he says.

Already on the campaign trail in advance of a Republican primary he is expected to win easily, Harris paints himself as a fiscal conservative first and foremost. In the state senate, he points out, he voted against every tax increase, every Democratic budget proposal, and even a few Republican ones that he found extravagant. If elected to Congress, he says he will not apply for earmarks.

Asked if his constituents may resent that another district gets the federal dollars they could have received from earmarks, Harris says, “You don’t lose projects when you move away from earmarks. You just let the normal appropriations process take place. People understand that earmarks aren’t special dollars—they are tax dollars that go to D.C. and then to the district.” In an election year where angry voters are lashing out against Washington’s borrowing and spending policies, his position on earmarks could prove popular.

Popular enough to beat Kratovil.  We’ll see in November.
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