Maryland, we have ourselves a race.
In a district that covers some of the most conservative terrain in the state, Republican Andy Harris is fighting off surging Democrat Frank Kratovil in a race shaped by aggressive advertising, a steep drop in fortunes for Harris' party nationwide and lots of outside money.
The Eastern Shore-based district, which sent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest to Washington nine times, was considered safe for the Republicans as recently as February. But Democrats now see a shot at picking up their seventh of Maryland's eight House seats.
Analysts say Harris, an anesthesiologist and state senator from Baltimore County, maintains a slight edge over Kratovil, the state's attorney for Queen Anne's County. But a pair of influential political newsletters have moved the race into the toss-up category, and Kratovil is claiming a narrow lead in internal polling.
Harris expects the finish to be close.
"If the elections were held today, I believe we'd win," he said last week. "But the election is not held today."
The intensity of the competition is apparent in both the volume and tone of advertising bombarding voters. A Harris television spot calls Kratovil "clueless, liberal and very wrong"; a Kratovil ad concludes: "Andy Harris: His ideas are just way out there."
It also shows in the amount of outside attention the race has drawn. The anti-tax Club for Growth directed nearly $1.2 million toward helping the conservative Harris defeat the moderate Gilchrest in a rancorous Republican primary, and the group is sending $310,000 more his way for the general election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, anticipates spending more than $1 million to support Kratovil.
As for the candidates themselves, Harris had raised nearly $2.6 million and Kratovil more than $1.4 million through Sept. 30. By comparison, in 2006, Gilchrest and Democratic challenger Jim Corwin raised less then $400,000 between them.
The level of investment this year is indicative of the challenge now confronting the GOP. While Republicans and Democrats alike are predicting Democratic gains in the House and Senate, Maryland's 1st District isn't one of the seats that was supposed to be in play.
Combining the Republican-leaning Eastern Shore with some of the most conservative-minded precincts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, the 1st was the byproduct of a Democratic redistricting effort earlier this decade. Led by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Democrats packed as many Republican voters as they could into the district in order to dilute their influence elsewhere in the state.
President Bush took 62 percent of the district vote in 2004; Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took 67 percent in 2006.
Ehrlich, who backed Harris over Gilchrest in the primary, says the 10-year state senator is "philosophically in tune" with the voters of the district. During a candidates forum last week in Severna Park, Harris, 51, who works at Johns Hopkins and serves as a commander in the Navy Reserve, spoke of cutting taxes, promoting domestic oil drilling and eliminating the U.S. Department of Education.
"This is a right-of-center, conservative, Republican-leaning district," said Ehrlich, who has continued to campaign for Harris in the general election. "I think it's going to be a good fit for him for many years. He'll have this seat for as long as he wants it."
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Chris Van Hollen says the district, where registered Democrats hold a slight advantage in voter registration, isn't Republican so much as moderate. The Montgomery County congressman cites the success of Gilchrest, who was distrusted by some conservatives but was able to draw on Democrats and independents to run up big general election margins.
Kratovil, 40, has campaigned on balancing the budget, expanding access to health care and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Factors that could play in Kratovil's favor, analysts say, include the flagging campaign of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, a financial crisis for which voters say they are blaming the GOP, and lingering divisions among local Republicans after the bitterly fought primary by Harris, Gilchrest and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin..
Gilchrest has crossed party lines to campaign for the Democrat. "He's smart, and he's articulate, and he's independent," Gilchrest said. "He and I share the same vision. Yes, he can win in this district."
To pull off the upset, analysts say, Kratovil needs to maximize the vote on the rural Eastern Shore, where residents speak of feeling neglected by officials on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay. While he was born and raised in Prince George's County, Kratovil has worked as a prosecutor in Queen Anne's County since 1997. Harris lives in Cockeysville.
"The Eastern Shore does have a sense of identity, a sense of place," said Harry Basehart, a former director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury University. "People on the Eastern Shore would like to have someone from the Eastern Shore represent them in Congress. ... But I figure Harris is going to win so big on the Western Shore that Kratovil will have to do very, very well on the Eastern Shore to overcome that."
After the GOP primary in February, The Cook Political Report put the district in its "Likely Republican" category, defined as "not considered competitive at this time," but having "the potential to become engaged." Last week, the independent newsletter said the race had become a toss-up.
David Wasserman, a Cook editor, said Kratovil has needed a "perfect storm" to win - and one just might be brewing.
"The Gilchrest endorsement is part of that," he said, as are the "geographical divide" between Harris and Kratovil, the "horrendous" climate for Republicans and the financial help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"After all of this, it's a competitive race," he said.
The Rothenberg Political Report, another independent newsletter, has moved the race to its "Toss-Up/Tilt Republican" category. Publisher Stuart Rothenberg said Republicans remain "somewhat divided."
"The Democrats could win it," he said. "We have it with a very, ever-so-slight, pinky-on-the-scale advantage for the Republicans, largely because of the district."
On the campaign trail, each candidate has tried to paint the other as an extremist. At the forum last week in Severna Park, Kratovil ran through a list of legislation in Annapolis - measures involving a child care tax credit, restrictions on new sewage plants and reductions in school class sizes, among other issues - on which Harris, alone among otherwise unanimous bipartisan support, voted no.
"Reasonable people can differ," Kratovil said. "But those views aren't reasonable."
But to some, the willingness of Harris to stand alone against Senate colleagues is a point in his favor.
"This guy stands out because he has intellectual courage and he has moral courage," said Spear Lancaster, a retired businessman from Crownsville who ran for governor in 2002 as a Libertarian but switched his party affiliation so he could vote for Harris in the Republican primary. "These are very rare characteristics in political officials."
At the Severna Park forum, Harris spoke of what he called "a basic difference" between Kratovil and himself on health care. "Honestly, he sees government as the solution to increase the number of people on the rolls of government-delivered health care," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, unless you want post office-style health care, you don't want to expand the Medicaid program to solve the uninsurables."
As U.S. 50 cuts across the Eastern Shore, roadside signs for Harris and Kratovil outnumber those for McCain and Barack Obama. The congressional candidates have spent the year crisscrossing the region, appearing at fairs, parades and community meetings to capture votes.
One who has made up her mind is Marguerite Long. A Democrat who has voted for Gilchrest, the Chestertown woman lists cleaning up the bay and restraining sprawl development on the Eastern Shore as the issues most important to her. This year, she says, she's backing Kratovil.
"He seems like a nice guy, a family man," Long said. "We need to get some young people in Congress."
Personal: Born Jan. 25, 1957, Brooklyn, N.Y.; married, with five children
Education: B.S., M.H.S., M.D., Johns Hopkins
Occupation: Chief of obstetric anesthesiology, John Hopkins Hospital; commander, Navy Reserve; state senator
Personal: Born May 29, 1968, Lanham; married, with four children
Education: B.A., Western Maryland College; J.D., University of Baltimore
Occupation: State's attorney, Queen Anne's County, 2003-present