Bridge to Somewhere

Eastern Shore Roots May Help Kratovil, but Do His Party Ties?

Posted September 24, 2008 at 6:35pm

After working hard to establish his moderate credentials for more than a year, Democrat Frank Kratovil is walking a tightrope these days as his party’s national campaign committee and high-profile party leaders begin to take a more active role in Maryland’s 1st district race.

On one hand, Kratovil will certainly need the fundraising and campaign infrastructure support that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and party bigwigs can provide in his effort to flip the 1st district into the Democratic column this fall. But Kratovil’s opponents say the more money and support that he accepts from his party establishment, the more beholden he is to liberal leaders in Washington, D.C. — and the less credibility he has with 1st district voters.

The Eastern Shore-based 1st district that Kratovil hopes to win this fall has long been considered a conservative stronghold in Maryland. It was one of only two district in the state to twice vote to send George W. Bush to the White House, and it did so both times by wide margins.

So establishing his moderate credentials and shunning the liberal Democratic label has been a major part of Kratovil’s campaign strategy. He has been successful in that effort, picking up the endorsement of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats in August and, earlier this month, landing a key endorsement in the form of outgoing Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest.

Gilchrest was defeated in a February primary by the man that Kratovil will face in November, state Sen. Andy Harris (R).

Kratovil appears to be benefiting because he is the one candidate in the race from the Eastern Shore, where most of the district’s voters are — a point that is reinforced by Gilchrest’s endorsement. Harris lives in Baltimore County.

Kratovil’s efforts seem to be paying off. As of early this month the 1st district race was tied, according to polling released last week by the DCCC.

But as Kratovil’s campaign has hit its stride, Harris’ campaign has said that the Democrat is starting to show his true, liberal colors.

While the DCCC has been openly supportive of Kratovil since adding him to its “Red to Blue” campaign program in June, the committee became very visible to Eastern Shore voters this week when it dropped $168,000 on a media buy in the district. According to party officials, the committee has reserved more than $1 million in air time in the 1st district between now and Election Day.

Republicans have been happy to point out the “far left liberal allies” who have contributed to or held events for Kratovil’s campaign this cycle, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Indeed, O’Malley, who is less popular on the Eastern Shore than he is in more populated parts of the state, held fundraisers for Kratovil as recently as August, and Kratovil spent part of last weekend appearing at several events with Hoyer.

Republicans are even panning Kratovil’s endorsement by Gilchrest, especially after the outgoing Congressman praised the “breadth of experience” of the Democratic presidential ticket of Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Joseph Biden (Del.) last week. Gilchrest has since denied that the statement was an outright endorsement of the Obama/Biden ticket — he was Maryland co-chairman of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign in 2000 — but Republicans looking to diminish the Congressman’s credibility with Eastern Shore voters are certainly playing up the statements as such.

Kratovil was asked Wednesday during a visit to Capitol Hill about whether all the support he has receiving from Washington would backfire in the Eastern Shore this fall.

“I understand that in order to compete you certainly need the resources to do so. And for that I am tremendously grateful,” Kratovil said. “But if your question is, ‘does that in any way change my philosophy or is it going to negatively impact people’s view of me as being independent?’ I doubt it. The reason is, my background demonstrates just the opposite.”

The two-term states attorney for Queen Anne County, who sells himself as tough on crime and an environmentalist, said, “I’ve spent my entire career making decisions with oftentimes much more pressure in terms of the repercussions. [I make] decisions based on fact and law and right and wrong.”

“I intend to represent the people of my district, and sometimes that may mean siding with the Democrats and sometimes it may not,” Kratovil said.

He added that despite some assessments of the partisanship of his district, simply having a “D” behind his name on the ballot is not a kiss of death in the 1st district.

“The whole mindset of looking at this race is wrong. This is a moderate district not an ultra-right district,” Kratovil said.

He said that if anyone is going to go to Washington and continue to simply vote his party line, “it’s my opponent. That’s been his background, and if you look at his voting record … I think it’s going to be clear to people that person who is going to be able to be independent, who is truly going to what he says, as Gilchrest did in many ways, and do what he thinks is right, is me.”

Harris campaign manager Chris Meekins scoffed at that assessment of the candidates in the race.

“When you look at the groups that have endorsed [Kratovil], the radical environmental special interest groups, the unions, he is a run-of-the-mill liberal Democrat,” Meekins said. “Now that the DCCC has started to mislead voters about Andy’s record, it’s time to set the record straight. Frank Kratovil is a liberal partisan Democrat … and voters are going to know that. And when they find out he’s a liberal and not this mask he’s trying to put on it’s going to be a very successful day [for Harris] on election night.”

Meekins added that “the more money the DCCC and his liberal allies throw in [to Kratovil’s campaign], the more they are painting him as part of the status quo in Washington.”