First District congressional race turns negative

The Maryland rematch between incumbent Democrat Frank Kratovil and Republican Andy Harris, one of the most closely watched House contests in the country, is turning negative.

An opening shot by Kratovil, the first attack ad of the general election race, goes after Harris for supporting a proposed national sales tax. However, the congressman's commercial never mentions that the sales-tax plan his challenger favors would do away with federal income taxes, an omission that an independent campaign watchdog has called deceptive in Democratic campaign advertising elsewhere.

At the same time, there's no debate in the state's easternmost congressional district over the hottest issue now before Congress: extending the Bush tax cuts, a question that divides candidates in most other House races. The First District takes in portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, plus the entire Eastern Shore.

Kratovil and Harris both favor extending federal income tax cuts set to expire this year — including for the wealthiest two percent of Americans. That puts Kratovil, a vulnerable incumbent, at odds with President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in the House who want taxes increased on income over $250,000.

Kratovil's first strike against Harris, a veteran state senator from Baltimore County, targets a 23 percent national sales tax plan backed by Harris. The Republican endorses the "fair tax" proposal on his campaign website as a way to reduces taxes, though a Bush administration panel concluded that taxes would actually go up — particularly on the middle class — if the plan were to become law.

The Kratovil commercial began airing late last week. It condemns the consumption tax as "unfair" and features person-in-the-street footage of unidentified men and women describing the plan as ruinous to business and "devastating."

"We can't afford Andy Harris' idea," one man says onscreen.

The nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center, which weighs the veracity of campaign ad claims, has criticized an identical line of attack elsewhere by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as "quite misleading," because it never mentioned that the sales tax proposal involves doing away with all other federal taxes. Another independent watchdog, Politifact, has also criticized similar ads.

The "fair tax" idea has been around since the mid-1990s and failed to advance during both Republican and Democratic administrations.

A blue-ribbon study during George W. Bush's presidency concluded that a national sales tax may increase economic growth, but it rejected the specific "fair tax" because it would cut government revenues and be difficult to administer. The "fair tax" would impose a disproportionate burden on small businesses, substantially raise taxes for middle-income Americans, increase the size and scope of government (because a new bureaucracy would be needed to direct subsidies to the poorest families) and need to be set at 30 percent or higher to avoid a drop in revenues, according to the Bush panel's 2005 report.

Harris' campaign has termed the new Kratovil ad "a desperate attack." The Republican's campaign aides wondered why the congressman, "who says he is ahead in the polls," would run "such a false, negative campaign."

The poll reference was to Democratic poll, made public by the Kratovil campaign last week, which claimed that the Eastern Shore congressman was leading Harris by six percentage points among likely voters. The survey, by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, was conducted after ads touting Kratovil's independence from his party's leadership had been airing in the district for two weeks and before Harris' post-primary ad buy began.

"Frank Kratovil is the first one to go negative and it's too bad," said Harris campaign manager Bill Lattanzi. He stopped short of promising that Harris wouldn't respond with attack ads of his own.

Kratovil campaign manager Jessica Klonsky defended the negative commercial as an effort to make sure voters "know all about the choice they have in front of them" in November.

"At the end of the day, Andy Harris put this up on his website. Anything he's proposing, we're going to look at, so voters know what he's going to do," she said.

Harris opened his general election campaign on primary night with an echo of a national Republican campaign theme: a promise to "retire" the team of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including Kratovil.

Two years ago, Harris lost to Kratovil by 3,000 votes in a contest marked by negative tactics and personal attacks. The Republican nominee tried to portray Kratovil, a former Queen Anne's County prosecutor, as soft on crime and dangerously liberal; Kratovil said Harris' conservative ideas were "just way out there."

Now, along with the same candidates, the negative tone is back.

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