High on Rep. Chris Van Hollen's to-do list this week ought to be a thank-you note to the Club for Growth. After all, it was the Montgomery Countian's job to put more Democrats in the House, and it was the ultra-conservative Club's misplaced priorities that have allowed an incumbent Republican to be replaced by a Blue Dog Democrat in Maryland's 1st Congressional District.
Although all absentee ballots have yet to be tabulated, Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank M. Kratovil Jr. now holds such a large lead that he could safely claim victory yesterday over Baltimore County state Sen. Andy Harris, who acknowledged his defeat. It is a shocking win for the Democrats considering how party leaders had gerrymandered the district six years ago as a dumping ground for Republican-leaning precincts.
But it was only the Club for Growth's willingness to heavily finance Mr. Harris' primary challenge to Wayne T. Gilchrest that made the GOP's loss possible in the first place. For all practical purposes, the nine-term incumbent's seat was safe in any general election - even with the Barack Obama tide - thanks to his many middle-of-the-road and pro-environmental views.
The election results tell the story. Mr. Kratovil's victory was won on the Eastern Shore, and the voters who pushed him over the top were John McCain supporters. Senator McCain won the Eastern Shore handily, and Mr. Kratovil won every Shore county, relying on those crossover votes to overcome Mr. Harris' popularity west of the Chesapeake Bay.
Mr. Kratovil was likely helped by a number of factors - financial support from the Democratic Party, Mr. Gilchrest's endorsement, a backlash to Mr. Harris' negative campaign tactics and the parochialism of rural Shore voters gravitating toward a Queen Anne's Countian over a politician from suburban Baltimore. Yet Mr. Gilchrest's presence in the race would have nullified them all.
This was not the first time that the Club for Growth and other conservative political groups have gone after a GOP candidate they judged to be a RINO - Republican in name only. Past targets include well-regarded Republican Sens. Arlen Specter and Olympia J. Snowe. But their insistence on ideological purity has clearly been a hindrance to their cause.
The Democratic ascendency in this election has its roots in the GOP's narrowing viewpoint. Moderate Republicans have become an endangered species far more at risk in party primaries than in November. Without them, Republicans can't hope to reverse their fortunes any time soon.