First District no longer a Shore thing for GOP

The Baltimore Sun

Maybe they should call it the Fractured First. The political terrain is splintered, politics are fractious, and the price of dissent is spiking.

State Sen. Andy Harris - of the Western Shore's Baltimore County - could be the First District's new voice in Washington unless voters on both sides of the bay find his hard-right rhetoric discordant. Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the Queen Anne's County state's attorney, hopes the momentum of a "change" election will move him from underdog to winner.

The old First District, traditionally regarded as the Eastern Shore's own, is essentially history. It's been replaced by a serpentine affair that loops over the top of the Chesapeake Bay to take in many precincts in Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. In all, 47 percent of the district is on the western side of the bay. It's always been thought of as solidly Republican, but because there are significant numbers of independents, no party has a majority, according to John T. Willis, a historian who helped draw the new district lines.

The geographical sundering occurred in the decennial balancing of populations designed to put roughly the same number of voters in each of the state's eight congressional districts. Although the Shore never had enough people to constitute a whole congressional district, that image endured anyway.

The combination of mapping, balancing and intraparty fighting conspired this time to help unseat moderate nine-term Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Mr. Gilchrest had seemed quintessentially Shore: independent, thoughtful and far removed from the self-absorbed Washington Beltway crowd. In the new reality, he found himself under attack for less-than-perfect adherence to party loyalty. He and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. clashed over slots, which Mr. Gilchrest opposed - to the chagrin of the former governor, who backed Mr. Harris in the primary.

President Bush and former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele campaigned for Mr. Gilchrest. It wasn't enough.

But the outcome of the general election race is in doubt. Favorite status had gone to Mr. Harris. Until recently, at least, he's been well funded and moving with the momentum of his primary victory. He seemed likely to have a financial edge, but Kratovil forces say their man has the money to compete on television.

Those who backed Mr. Harris included some who found Mr. Gilchrest too independent, less moored to GOP orthodoxy than they liked - and not in step with President Bush on the war. "Wayne broke ranks," says Kent County Commissioner Roy Crow, a Republican, "but I was proud that he voted on the right direction for the country as a whole."

In a way, Mr. Gilchrest was punished by voters in the new First for the trait that made him seem such a perfect fit for the old, pre-redistricting Shore district.

"Wayne would rather be out in hiking boots checking on a bird sanctuary than attending a GOP dinner," said John W. Cole, Republican chairman of the Caroline County Board of Commissioners. "That did not serve him well."

Mr. Cole has angered a few in his party by endorsing Democrat Kratovil. But at least he has company in his defection from the GOP: Mr. Crow joined him. And, recently, Mr. Gilchrest himself was on television with an advertisement endorsing Mr. Kratovil.

Democrats aren't conceding the election this fall by a long shot. Another Marylander, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicts the First will fall in line with the national movement toward Democrats, particularly given the worsening economic climate.

"People want a pragmatist, a problem solver, not an ideologue," he said.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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