CENTREVILLE, Md. -- In the 2008 U.S. House race, Queen Anne County prosecutor Frank M. Kratovil Jr. narrowly beat Republican state Sen. Andy Harris, a physician who only conceded his 2,852-vote loss after a week of ballot counting. At the time, many in the GOP felt Harris would have won if Dr. Richard Davis,
a dentist, hadn't polled nearly 9,000 votes as the Libertarian nominee.
Today, Kratovil -- making sure voters know he's a "Blue Dog" breed of fiscally conservative Democrat and independent enough to buck the president on health care and other issues -- is fighting for his political life. Maryland's Republican-leaning 1st Congressional District, which runs from Baltimore's northern and southern suburbs across the Chesapeake Bay to the scenic Eastern Shore, gave Sen. John McCain a 19-point edge over Barack Obama two years ago.
Despite that GOP majority, Kratovil became the first Democrat in 18 years to take the seat after moderate, nine-term Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrist fell to Harris in a bruising primary.
For this rematch, Harris often reminds voters the national jobless rate was 6.5 percent the day Kratovil was elected, and now stands at 9.5 percent. He's betting an energized, anti-incumbent electorate will send him to Capitol Hill, where he vows to vote against every single tax increase that comes up, just as he's done during his 12 years in Annapolis.
"You have to stop a one-party system. You have to make sure Nancy Pelosi is not speaker of the House in January," Harris told several hundred people at a recent League of Women Voters forum at Queen Anne County High School. Harris branded his rival a "Washington insider" who voted for the economic stimulus package and has supported Pelosi "85 percent of the time." Harris wants to replace all federal taxes with a 23 percent national sales tax, and impose congressional term limits to curb the power of such Democratic committee chairmen as Reps. Charlie Rangel of New York (Ways and Means) and Barney Frank of Massachusetts (Financial Services).
Kratovil used the forum to denounce "political ideologues" like Harris. "If you want to solve problems in Congress, you need more moderates, not people who vote against everything." He backed the stimulus, said Kratovil, to keep the country from sinking into a depression, but voted against the Obama health care bill. As for his loyalty to Pelosi, Kratovil noted that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, voted with the speaker 68 percent of the time.
What saved the forum from devolving into predictable he said/he said soundbites was the reappearance of Libertarian Davis, who wants to abolish the Departments of Education, and Housing and Urban Development and bring home all overseas troops except U.S. Embassy guards. Independent Jack Wilson, a burly contractor in his self-funded maiden race, supports raising the Social Security retirement age to 70. He would also bar candidates from receiving any non-Maryland campaign contributions.
It's a little late for that in this high-dollar campaign, with Kratovil and Harris heavily financed by their respective parties -- a total of $803,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $883,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee as of mid-October. Those figures may yet rise before Nov. 2.
Both have also received a recent flood of independent money for attack ads from so-called "super-PACs."
America's Families First Action Fund is spending $400,000 on anti-Harris TV spots. It is funded by a group of wealthy Democrats.
Earlier this month,
Concerned Taxpayers of America launched anti-Kratovil ads as part of its $300,000 campaign push, while the American Society of Anesthesiologists -- the medical specialty of Harris -- made a $27,000 ad buy. That's on top of the $364,000 the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity spent on a large broadcast buy on the Eastern Shore, where Kratovil carried every county in 2008.
The latest independent poll
published earlier this month gives Harris a statistically insignificant 3-point lead (it has a 4.9 percent margin of error) and pegs 15 percent of likely voters as undecided. An internal Kratovil poll from September gave him a 6-point lead. Harris won't discuss his own private surveys, but smiled when asked whether he was pleased with the campaign. Campaign chair Ellen Sauerbrey, a former state House minority leader who lost two runs for governor, predicted Harris will win by 3 percentage points.
Harris ought not get too confident just yet, cautioned one local academic. "With the anti-incumbent mood in the country, with the enthusiasm gap Republicans are generally enjoying over Democrats, Harris' numbers should be substantially higher than they are," Adam Hoffman, co-director of Salisbury University's Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, told the Delmarva Daily Times.
"I am not worried," Kratovil told Politics Daily. "Cooperation is my message. That's why I get hit from the right and the left. People can criticize me on individual votes, but no one can argue that I have not been independent. My opponent represents exactly what people hate about politics. For him it's only yes/no, black/white, all or nothing."
As for Davis once again siphoning votes from Harris in this close race, Kratovil said the Libertarian could cut both ways because, like the congressman, the dentist also lives on the Eastern Shore, where he has friends and supporters. Harris lives west of the Chesapeake.
With a pair of televised football games set to air Sunday afternoon and evening, voters spent a little time schmoozing with the candidates before heading home.
"I like the fact that Kratovil is more of an independent. He is not such a partisan, so he can reach across the aisle and deal with others. We need that," said Kendall Ruffatto, 62, of Chestertown, who works for the state judicial system. "Things are very ugly in politics today. It turns people off, and it hasn't helped the country."
Benjamin Cassell, 63, a Stevensville transportation consultant, is solidly in the Harris camp. "I am a friend of Frank Kratovil but I don't want him as my congressman because he's irresponsible. He voted to give his aides a bonus, he voted himself a raise. . . . But what really got me was he voted against the health care, but he refuses to sign the discharge petition to repeal it."