Kratovil faces uphill battle; Edwards, a surprise test

WASHINGTON — — Stiff challenges for a pair of congressional incumbents and a re-election run by the state's senior senator will headline a competitive 2010 election season for federal lawmakers from Maryland, according to politicians in both parties and independent analysts.

Republicans started gunning for Rep. Frank Kratovil before he took office in 2009 in the district that straddles the Chesapeake Bay, composed of the Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties. Because the Democrat represents one of the most Republican areas of the state, he easily ranks as the most vulnerable member of the state's delegation in Washington and is one of the most endangered House members in the country.

"Kratovil has done a nice job of trying, on most issues, to vote the district," reflecting its conservative views on legislation in the House, said Stu Rothenberg, who publishes the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. But "bottom line, the district stinks for him."

Another relatively new House member, Rep. Donna F. Edwards, is unexpectedly gearing up to defend her job against one or more fellow Democrats. Glenn F. Ivey, the state's attorney in Prince George's County, has formed an exploratory committee and is expected to announce in early 2010 that he'll challenge Edwards in the Sept. 14 primary.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski continues to be slowed by a broken ankle suffered in a fall last summer, but she appears to be cruising to another six-year term. Republicans have not recruited a serious challenger, and the Maryland race is not rated as competitive by the major political parties and independent analysts.

The 73-year-old Democrat from Baltimore, first elected to the Senate in 1986, is the most popular politician in Maryland, according to statewide public opinion surveys.

Former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., thought to be preparing to run for his old job, has left open the possibility of a 2010 Senate campaign.

Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said the former governor is considering races for either governor or senator. He added that Ehrlich "would rather be governor" and that Mikulski "would be very difficult to take on."

Strategists in both parties do not see a Mikulski-Ehrlich race as a serious possibility and expect him to stay out as long as Mikulski remains a candidate for re-election. The filing deadline for both party primaries is July 5.

In Maryland, and nationally, the severe economic downturn is likely to make the 2010 election a difficult one for Democratic candidates. As representatives of the party in power, their prospects will be heavily dependent on public attitudes toward President Barack Obama, whose poll numbers have dropped during the past year. Historically, the president's job approval rating is regarded as an important indicator of his party's midterm election chances.

Rothenberg, in a recently released update of elections in all 435 House districts, said a net loss of 15 to 20 Democratic House seats appears likely in November. Those numbers "could well grow" if more Democratic lawmakers retire or if voter anger continues to deepen, he wrote.

Six of Maryland's eight incumbent representatives are likely to face, at best, token opposition. Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, John Sarbanes of Towson, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Cockeysville, Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County and Steny H. Hoyer of St. Mary's County and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett of Frederick are regarded as safe bets for another two-year term.

The same can't be said of Kratovil, who benefited from a strong Democratic turnout and sharp Republican divisions in 2008.

Republican state Sen. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, who narrowly lost to Kratovil after defeating incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest in the primary, is hoping for a rematch. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been encouraging Harris, while waiting to see whether state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who also ran in the heated Republican primary, jumps in.

Rothenberg, who lists the district as a "pure tossup" in November, said Pipkin's decision is one of the factors that has kept him from predicting that Kratovil, the freshman Democrat, will be unseated.

But, he added: "Do I think that at the end of the day this seat is likely to be won by Andy Harris or a Republican? Yes."

The other Maryland seat that has changed hands in recent years - the 4th District, which snakes through Montgomery and Prince George's counties in the Washington suburbs - will likely have a Democratic representative in the next Congress.

It might not be Edwards, despite having won three elections in the district in 2008. The first black woman in Congress from Maryland unseated longtime Rep. Albert R. Wynn in that year's Democratic primary, replaced him in a special election after he quit a few weeks later and won a full two-year term in November.

The most liberal lawmaker in the Maryland delegation, Edwards has been building a reputation as a rising star in national progressive circles. But her ascent could be cut short by Ivey, the Prince George's County prosecutor, who recently passed up an expected run for county executive and targeted Edwards instead.

Ivey, in an interview, seemed to suggest that the campaign would be more of a personality contest than an ideological one. Both Ivey and Edwards are liberal Democrats who worked in Washington staff jobs before winning election to public office.

"This is that window of opportunity that maybe comes once in a generation," said Ivey, describing Capitol Hill as "where the action is now, from a policy standpoint."

He said a campaign against Edwards "looks a lot more like two incumbents running against each other" than an insurgent challenge.

Some Democrats have questioned the rationale for an Ivey candidacy, beyond advancing his ambitions, since Edwards is seen as a smart, independent thinker who has been a creditable representative for her district.

"I'm not at the stage where I want to be critical of her and throwing stones," Ivey said. "I've been saying, 'I probably should step into the ring before I start throwing punches.' "

Ivey, now in his second four-year term as state's attorney, said he'll announce his plans in early 2010. Other Democrats say he's clearly running. Ivey is married to state Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's County Democrat first elected in 2006.

The intraparty struggle could pose a problem for Maryland Democrats, including members of the state delegation in Washington, several of whom have close ties to both Ivey and Edwards.

Edwards, the incumbent, has the early advantage, but Ivey might be better known among voters in the district. Adding more uncertainty to the contest: state Del. Herman L. Taylor Jr. of Montgomery County has said that he's also considering a primary challenge against Edwards.

Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and represents the district next door, said the Maryland race would not be one of those rare primary contests in which the party's House campaign committee gets involved.

"The DCCC is staying out of that primary," he said.