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Harris unseats Kratovil as part of Republican gains in the House

A potent Republican punch knocked Democrats from power in the House but largely spared Maryland incumbents in Tuesday's midterm voting.

As part of that national trend, Maryland's most closely watched House contest saw Republican state Sen. Andy Harris defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil in the 1st District. Nearly complete returns showed Harris doing considerably better on the Eastern Shore than in 2008, when he lost in the historically Republican district by less than 3,000 votes.

Veteran Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was easily re-elected, as Marylanders also returned seven of the state's eight House members to office by comfortable margins.

"I've won the Senate seat. I'm going back to Washington," the 74-year-old Mikulski told a crowd of several hundred supporters at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. The Democrat earned a fifth six-year term, tying a state record set by retired Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Nationally, a Republican gain of more than of 50 seats appeared possible, if not likely, far above the 39-seat threshold need to regain control. Democrats were in danger of falling below 200 seats in the House for the first time since the 1940s.

The Senate appeared likely to stay in Democratic hands, though by a narrower margin, with Republican tea party favorites Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida among the newly elected senators.

For the third national election in a row, American voters sent a clear message of change to Washington. Deeply anxious over the direction of the economy, they reversed Democratic gains of the last four years and appeared to assure divided control of Congress for the second half of President Barack Obama's term.

At least one Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, was unseated. In Delaware, tea party Republican Christine O'Donnell was defeated by Democrat Chris Coons for the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden.

Republican National Chairman Michael S. Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, told an election-night celebration at a downtown Washington hotel: "We're about to do the one thing the American people want done, and that is to fire Pelosi," referring to Baltimore-born Nancy Pelosi, the first female House speaker in history.

The shift in control of the House produced a widespread power outage for Maryland.

House Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland was dumped from his influential perch as the chamber's second-ranking official. He was demoted, along with Pelosi, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen and other members of the Democratic leadership, to minority-party status, with sharply reduced clout under House rules.

Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, re-elected to an eighth two-year term, lost his chairmanship of the House Aviation, Coast Guard and Marine Transportation subcommittee.

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Frederick, re-elected for the ninth time at age 84, became one of the senior members of the House majority, though it is not clear what leadership position he'll receive. He was passed over as chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, which will be led by a more junior Republican from California.

Maryland's only competitive House race, in the state's easternmost congressional district, saw Kratovil, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat, unseated after a single term.

"I've already been called by Speaker Boehner," Harris told cheering supporters last night, referring to Ohio Rep. John A. Boehner, likely to become the next House speaker.

"I look forward to going to Washington and rolling up our sleeves," said the veteran state lawmaker, who represented Baltimore's northern suburbs in Annapolis for a dozen years.

Harris thanked Kratovil for "running a tough race" and handling "a very tough job" as congressman. To chants of "Fire Pelosi," the Republican said the next Congress must cut taxes and reduce spending "to get the country back on track again."

The Harris-Kratovil race, one of the most expensive House campaigns in state history, was a rerun of Maryland's closest congressional election of 2008. Republicans had held the seat from the early 1990s until Kratovil rode Obama's coattails to a narrow victory.

The campaign was fueled by record spending, in the first federal election in which organizations could deploy unlimited amounts from corporations, labor unions and individuals. Nationally, spending broke the previous mark for a midterm election and could reach $4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.

The Kratovil-Harris matchup was among the top House campaigns in the nation, with at least $8 million spent. Much of that went for a saturation ad drive that bombarded voters in the Baltimore and Salisbury media markets with largely negative commercials.

Final spending figures won't be available for months, but Kratovil's campaign and groups supporting him outspent challenger Harris and his backers by almost $1 million.

Much of the money came from the national Democratic and Republican parties. Also chipping in: nearly 20 outside groups, including environmental organizations, organized labor and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for Kratovil, and the Anesthesiologists professional association, an Owings Mills construction company owned by Danny Schuster, conservative organizations and a tea party group headed by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas on behalf of Harris.

The rival camps held their Election Night parties less than a mile apart on Kent Island, midway in a district that sprawls from Maryland's ocean sands across the entire Eastern Shore, jumping the Chesapeake Bay to take in parts of Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties.

About 200 upbeat Harris supporters, some wearing red "Fire Pelosi" buttons, gathered at Grasonville's Harris Crab House, greeting the state senator, who is not related to the restaurant's owners, and his family and serenading the candidate's son, Danny, on his 11th birthday.

Harris supporter Tom Frank of Crofton said his own congressman, Democrat John Sarbanes, who was elected to a third term, "wants to raise my taxes, and Harris promises not to do that. I think this country has lost its way."

Frank's wife, Sunny, said Harris did a better job of reaching out to voters this time than he did in his '08 defeat. "I think he really got the word out,", she said.

Harris campaign spokeswoman Anna Nix said, "Andy's platforms haven't changed. It's the nation that's changed."

Paul Beals, a Harris supporter, said, "The Democrats and Obama are putting us in severe debt. Obamacare is an abomination. It's going to ruin health care."

"We have to follow the Constitution," added Beals, who lives in Kratovil's hometown of Stevensville. "People want to get rid of the Democratic agenda."

Down the road at the Crab Deck, a smaller throng watched the returns and waited for Kratovil to appear.

After a concession phone call to Harris, Kratovil told supporters he looked forward to spending much needed time with his family. He talked about his approach for seeking moderate positions in Congress, and worried about the "pendulum swings" of power due to polarizing political views.

"To move forward as a nation, what we need are independent-minded, critical-thinking, and substance-minded people" in government, he said.

paul.west@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporters Gus G. Sentementes and Annie Linskey and special correspondent Sarah Tan contributed to this article.

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