CAMPAIGN 2010:

Md. Democrat courts enviros in House re-election bid

EASTON, Md. -- Rematches are never easy.

Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) beat Republican Andy Harris by less than 3,000 votes in 2008 when Maryland had a record Democratic turnout.

Kratovil's victory was unusual: He won even as President Obama was losing the district by 19 points. And since the late 1980s, no Democrat had been elected to represent Maryland's 1st District, which encompasses the Eastern Shore and suburbs of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties -- all fairly Republican areas.

The outcome of their rematch this year will, to some degree, be a tale of two distinct places, as it was in 2008: agricultural vs. suburban.

Two years ago, Kratovil carried the Eastern Shore, while Harris largely garnered support among the suburban districts west of the Chesapeake Bay, where his state Senate district sits. The senator from Cockeysville had won the Republican primary by flipping the equation, winning enough votes on the Western Shore to unseat longtime incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, one of the last GOP moderates remaining in Congress.

Gilchrest, a favorite of environmental groups, went on to endorse Kratovil in that campaign, as he has in this year's race. But much has changed since 2008, and the sentiment on the Eastern Shore, where the economy is largely tied to the environment, appears to be anti-incumbent and anti-Obama -- and that means anti-Kratovil.

Gilchrest still has fans

Outside of the Acme grocery store in this middle-shore town the other day, residents still viewed Gilchrest warmly and described Kratovil as a worthy successor.

Leroy Wilkison, a 61-year-old retired firefighter who lives in Newcomb, said he sees a lot of Gilchrest in Kratovil, in that they both study the issues and vote their conscience.

Kratovil, he said, is "very analytical in what he does."

Wilkison said he fears that Harris would just vote as his party dictated. "There are too many followers and not enough leaders" in Congress, he said.

Hurlock resident Sherron Potter, 27, said she will be voting the Democratic ticket and she is optimistic that the voter apathy being talked about this year is just a rumor and not a reality. "I think it is changing," she said of her congressional district. "I still think a lot of them are going to turn out."

When asked about the overall political mood on the shore, James Bradley, 79, of Denton said his friends do not talk politics but that he is a Democrat and as usual is concerned about voter turnout.

Although she did not vote for Kratovil last time, Cathy Ensor, a 55-year-old Bethesda transplant who now lives in Oxford, said she has been impressed with the congressman's voting record, especially what he has done for small business. But asked about her ballot, she said she is still researching both candidates.

One thing that does appeal to Ensor about Harris is that he would be another Republican vote at a time when she does not really like the president's policies -- and that, she said, is important to her.

"I hear [Obama] is very nice, but his economic theories are very flawed," she said.

And while Cordova resident Steve Carroll, 49, who describes himself as a "tea partyist," is not excited about Harris or Kratovil, he said Harris represents his fiscal and social beliefs best.

"I'm not a big Harris fan," Carroll said with a large sigh. Describing himself as not happy about his choice, Carroll said Harris is "most representative of the values I hold."

For Carroll, environmental issues have not played into the race despite the fact that his father was a farmer. He described the area as incredibly rural and where he lived as the "smack-dab middle of farmer country."

Local Roots

Although he grew up in the Baltimore area, Kratovil, a former Queen Anne's County state's attorney, sank professional roots on the Eastern Shore years ago. Harris, though he may fit the district better ideologically, remains an object of suspicion in some places on the shore -- and that may offset many of his natural advantages this election cycle.

Kratovil has received multiple endorsements from environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and Environment Maryland.

LCV gave the Democrat a 79 percent on its environmental scorecard for 2009. In announcing the endorsement, LCV President Gene Karpinski said in a statement, "Congressman Kratovil has fought to bring clean energy jobs to Maryland and reduce our national dependence on foreign oil."

Kratovil, who sits on the Agriculture and Armed Services committees, recognizes the intrinsic tie between the environment and the economy on the Eastern Shore.

In a statement released when he accepted the LCV endorsement, Kratovil said, "In the First District, the environment and the economy go hand in hand. From the seafood industry to tourism, protecting our economic future means protecting the health of our environment."

Environmental groups credit the freshman congressman with voting for the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 and his work as a member of the Congressional Chesapeake Bay Task Force.

At the same time, the Maryland branch of the LCV awarded Harris a lifetime rating of 13 percent on its environmental scorecard for his dozen years in the Legislature. Among the reasons LCV cited for its opposition to Harris is that as a state senator he voted against the Healthy Air Act and the Clean Cars Act but supported efforts to build inside of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife preserve encompassing more than 25,000 acres on the Eastern Shore.

Harris' advantages

Despite Kratovil's environmental support, polls are tilted in favor of Harris winning on Nov. 2. Real Clear Politics rates the race as likely Republican and showed Harris ahead by 3 points in an average of recent polls.

"Harris is still a favorite but it's not the done deal many Republicans thought it would be six months ago," said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

And the money is pouring in. As of Aug. 25, Kratovil had raised $1.9 million to Harris' $1.5 million. Outside groups are also spending heavily on the race.

Andy Sere, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the group intends to spend $833,000 to get Harris elected -- an amount he described as on the high end for the committee's investments in various races.

Maryland's 1st District is "one of the most Republican districts in the country held by a Democrat," he said. The plan, Sere said, is to "focus mainly on pointing out [how] Kratovil's votes this Congress diverge from his independent rhetoric."

Wasserman said that Kratovil has been "gaining traction by turning this into another regional race between the Eastern Shore and suburban Baltimore."

In the end, Wasserman said that while Kratovil may take the Eastern Shore, he won't be able to overcome the turnout of Republican votes from the conservative Western Shore.