Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil and Republican challenger Andy Harris are running dead even in Maryland's hottest midterm election contest, a new Baltimore Sun poll shows.
The same candidates fought to a near draw two years ago. In the latest poll, each man was favored by 40 percent of likely voters.
This year, with control of Congress in play, Maryland's easternmost district features one of the most closely watched, and expensive, House races in the country. Both sides have subjected voters to a heavy dose of negative advertising that has shaped opinions about the candidates.
Caught in the middle are independent voters like Danielle Cassano, who lives in Severna Park with her husband and two small children. She finds Harris' conservative social and fiscal views appealing and wants more Republicans in Congress, to check the Democrats' power.
She voted for Harris in 2008 and is supporting former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s comeback run, in part because she's tired of seeing her taxes go up. But she's torn about backing Harris again.
She said in an interview that she's concerned about what she described as Harris' "very bad environmental record" and the "crazy things" she's heard "about him wanting to raise some taxes." The reference was to the Republican's support for a plan that would replace the federal income tax with a 23 percent consumption tax, a proposal that is a target of attacks from Kratovil and the Democrats.
Republicans had held the seat since the 1990 election, until Kratovil took it in 2008. Now, Harris is attempting to take it back.
Two years ago, Kratovil benefited from turnout for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, winning by less than 3,000 votes, even though the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin carried the district by 19 percentage points.
Deborah Gable, 53, a registered Democrat who backed Kratovil then, is among those switching to Harris.
Kratovil "basically supports the party line, and that's not where we need to be right now." He and the rest of the Democratic Party "are not listening to us" or doing enough to "put people back to work," said the Harford Community College secretary, who hasn't had a pay raise in three years.
Harris, like other Republican challengers around the country, has sought to tie the Democratic incumbent to unpopular House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. His campaign and allied conservative groups are running TV commercials to drive that message home.
A veteran state legislator from Baltimore County, Harris was an early favorite to avenge his narrow 2008 defeat. But he struggled to pull away, disappointing Republican strategists.
Heading into the final week of the campaign, he is still the favorite to win, according to some independent election analysts.
Harris has benefited from the district's Republican leanings, and from the expectation that Democratic voters who supported Obama will stay home this year.
The non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report sees the race leaning Harris' way and has factored that forecast into its prediction that Republicans will gain at least 40 seats nationally, one more than needed to take control of the House from the Democrats. The New York Times website's FiveThirtyEight computerized forecast model predicts a Harris victory and a 52-seat Republican gain.
The Sun survey results reflect the divide created by the district's geography, shaped by the Chesapeake Bay. On the western side of the Bay, Harris is favored by a significant margin.
Voters on the Eastern Shore, who consider themselves part of a unique section of Maryland, favor Kratovil, a former Queen Anne's County prosecutor, by a similarly wide margin.
Harris has tried to make inroads on the Eastern Shore, which he lost in 2008. The Johns Hopkins Hospital anesthesiologist has worked part time at hospitals in Salisbury and Easton and celebrated his primary victory in Salisbury on election night.
William Mezick, 63, of Salisbury wasn't aware of Harris' efforts to connect with Shore residents. The retired parole officer said the deluge of TV attack ads made him want to stay away from his polling place; he says he'll vote for the Republican "mainly because of his pro-life stance."