GRASONVILLE -- Taking the highly unusual step of opposing the re-election bid of a congressman from his own party, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. threw his weight last night behind state Sen. Andrew P. Harris's bid to unseat nine-term Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.
Recalling a 2004 episode when Gilchrest testified against Ehrlich's proposal to legalize slot machine gambling, Ehrlich praised Harris for being a "team player" in a state where Republicans must work together to fight the politics of majority Democrats.
"This is not an easy race, incumbents have a lot of advantages," Ehrlich said. "Being a party-builder is part of the job description. ... When I talk about a team player, I'm talking about a congressman who would support a sitting Republican governor doing difficult things in the minority in Annapolis, Maryland, when [Democratic leaders] Mike Busch and Mike Miller had all the cards. I didn't get that. Andy will deliver that because he understands what it means to be a team player."
Gilchrest aides characterized the endorsement as political expediency by Ehrlich.
"This is deeper than any disagreement on any issue," said Tony Caligiuri, the congressman's chief of staff. "This is not about Andy Harris and this is not about Wayne Gilchrest. This is about Bob Ehrlich making a political comeback and wanting politicians in office who he can influence on his policy initiatives."
At a fundraiser here that brought in more than $50,000, Harris told about 50 supporters that he would exercise more fiscal restraint and party loyalty, oppose illegal immigration and do a better job of fighting terrorism.
"Surrender in this war is simply not an option," Harris said, allowing that he respected Gilchrest, a decorated Vietnam veteran, for his Marine Corps service.
Gilchrest, 61, is in his ninth term representing Maryland's 1st Congressional District, which covers the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.
The moderate Republican has voiced concerns about the Bush administration's policies in Iraq and has sided with congressional Democrats in efforts to assert more control over the war effort.
But his office issued a news release yesterday noting that Gilchrest has been invited to join President Bush for an environmental policy announcement in St. Michaels tomorrow. Bush carried the district with 62 percent in 2004.
The congressman last faced a challenge from within his party in 2004, when he collected 62 percent of the vote against state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a conservative Republican.
Colburn cried foul that year when the state GOP sent out a mailing featuring photos of Ehrlich and Gilchrest, who served together in Congress from 1995 to 2002. The state party chairman at the time pointed to an "incumbent protection policy." But weeks later, Gilchrest went to Annapolis to testify against Ehrlich's slots proposal.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Harris has raised $528,510 and has $402,304 on hand. Gilchrest reported $182,075 in contributions, with $414,099 left to spend.
The Club for Growth, a Washington group that promotes fiscal conservatism, has helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Harris, who represents Baltimore and Harford Counties in the state Senate, in next year's primary race.
"A lot of people have been totally disgusted by Republicans who are spending too much and voting for tax increases like Wayne Gilchrest," said David Keating, the group's executive director.
The political committees of House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel are among the groups that have given to Gilchrest this year.
"I think he's an exceptional member," said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We don't see the world necessarily the same way. But you know, the world from the Eastern Shore probably looks a little bit different than it does from south-central, southwest Oklahoma. He does a good job. And I think he'll be a very effective candidate, because he always is."
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.