GOP Betting on Andy Harris 2.0 in Maryland

Posted August 3, 2009 at 6:11pm

Last week, Maryland state Sen. Andy Harris was tapped as one of the 13 inaugural members of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s revamped “Young Guns— program, which aids the party’s top challenger and open-seat candidates.

And next week, Harris will start his new job at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Md. Harris, a full-time anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, will be lending his medical expertise to the Eastern Shore hospital on a part-time basis.

Both activities represent major components of the conservative state Senator’s effort to revamp and give his campaign a makeover in the wake of his stunning 2008 loss.

Last year, Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) narrowly won the race in the 1st district — long-held Republican territory that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by 18 points in the presidential race.

Republican discord in the wake of a bitter primary was a major reason that Harris lost last year.

Harris, who was heavily backed by the anti-tax group Club for Growth, won the GOP nomination by ousting moderate Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R). And while Gilchrest had the personal backing of then-NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) in the primary, the lame-duck Congressman and many of his top operatives endorsed Kratovil over Harris in the general election.

Harris, who hails from Cockeysville, near Baltimore, was also hurt last cycle because he is not from the Eastern Shore, which is where the majority of the district’s voters reside.

He hasn’t moved in the past nine months, but Harris’ job in Salisbury and his plans to possibly extend his part-time work to other Eastern Shore medical facilities are clear signals that Harris wants to have a more prominent presence on that side of the Chesapeake Bay this cycle.

Harris admitted Monday that he needs to reintroduce himself to 1st district voters this cycle and tell them more about his work as a doctor and his service for over 20 years in the Naval Reserve Medical Corps.

“It’s a part of my story that I don’t think came out— during the 2008 campaign, he said. “Health care and foreign policy took a back seat to the huge economic issue that occurred at the end of last year.—

One Republican strategist said Monday that playing up Harris’ medical background will be a key part of his campaign as the health care reform debate continues to be a leading issue on voters’ minds.

“I think it’s important for people to know that in the midst of the most important health care debate ever it would be nice to have someone who is a world-class physician— in Congress, the strategist said.

As he works to build a new image, Harris is being aided by a overhauled campaign team featuring Mike Spellings as campaign manager, Tommy Hopper as general consultant and well-known Maryland GOP fundraiser Amy Shuster, who has previously worked for former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R).

Harris, who had just more than $210,000 in the bank as of June 30, has two major fundraisers scheduled for late September. The first will take place in Anne Arundel and feature former Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich. The second will feature former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and take place on the Eastern Shore.

And as he works to build Andy Harris 2.0 on the campaign trail, the NRCC is clearly hoping to help sooth the wounds of the 2008 primary by embracing Harris through its Young Guns program. The move also appears to send the signal to other potential challengers that Harris has the full weight of the national party behind him this time around.

To coincide with the presidential calendar, the 2008 primary took place in February last year and, despite having nine months before the general election, Harris still wasn’t able to escape the negative fallout from that contest.

“For whatever reason, Andy appeared to be too negative,— the GOP strategist said, adding that it didn’t help that Harris’ campaign strategy never reached much beyond calling Kratovil a liberal.

Avoiding a bitter intraparty fight will be especially important this cycle since the Sept. 14 primary takes place just six weeks before the general election.

But those considerations may not matter if state Sen. E.J. Pipkin decides to take another shot at the GOP nomination.

Pipkin, who was first elected to the state Senate in 2002, was the third serious candidate in the 2008 Republican primary, and he poured nearly $1 million of his own money into the race. Harris tried to portray Gilchrest and Pipkin as being too liberal for the district, and Pipkin responded with his own attacks against Harris.

Pipkin, who couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, is rumored to be interested in making another run — especially since he would likely pick up some former Gilchrest voters in another primary against Harris.

But Harris said he is hopeful that he can avoid a primary next year and has plans to sit down with Pipkin and other Maryland GOP leaders sometime in the near future to “discuss this race in the context of a much larger puzzle in the state of Maryland. … There are several places where Sen. Pipkin could fit in.—

There’s been some talk in recent weeks of Pipkin running for state comptroller next year.

Meanwhile, Kratovil’s camp said Monday that they aren’t scared of Andy Harris 2.0.

“Rep. Kratovil isn’t concerned with how other candidates need to remake themselves in order to be more competitive,— said spokesman Kevin Lawlor.

Kratovil, who had more than $503,000 in his campaign account as of June 30, is spending the August recess travelling the district “listening to constituents so their opinions can inform his votes,— Lawlor said.