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Redistricting leaves Harris sitting atop GOP stronghold

- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2011

Rep. Andy Harris might be the most unlikely beneficiary of Maryland's new congressional map.

The map, proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and approved last week by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, will keep congressional Democrats safe in six of the state's eight districts and give the party its best chance in two decades to unseat Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.

However, experts say the map could make Mr. Harris, a Republican, unbeatable in his 1st District, which covers the entire Eastern Shore and was redrawn this year to include more of conservative northern Maryland - turning it from a conservative-leaning district that he lost in 2008 into a GOP stronghold for years to come.

"We made the Eastern Shore as Republican as it can possibly be," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat. "It's going to be a Republican [district] for the next 10 to 15 years, for sure."

Mr. Harris' safer district is largely a byproduct of changes made to Mr. Bartlett's Western Maryland district, which the governor and a committee that included Mr. Miller redrew to include the western half of liberal-leaning Montgomery County.

Their map also took conservative sections of Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick and Harford counties from Mr. Bartlett, and moved many of the Baltimore, Carroll and Harford voters into Mr. Harris' district.

State GOP analysts estimate about 42.2 percent of registered voters in the new 1st District will be Republicans, while 41.5 percent will be Democrats.

Mr. Harris, thus far, has had little to say publicly about his new district.

"It certainly appears that way," he responded weeks ago, when asked about reports that Democrats would keep his district largely intact.

Before the map was released, Mr. Harris, 54, was already establishing himself as the leading candidate in the district. Last year, he handily beat incumbent Frank Kratovil - the only Democrat to represent the district since 1991 - rebounding from a narrow loss to Mr. Kratovil in 2008.

Mr. Harris, a former state senator who was one of Maryland's most conservative lawmakers, earned the Republican nomination in 2008 by toppling moderate, nine-term incumbent Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest.

While Mr. Harris appears poised for re-election, no prominent Democrats have publicly stated they are even considering a run at his seat.

Mr. Kratovil has given no indication that he will run. He took a job this year as assistant deputy state's attorney in Prince George's County and even applied this month for a judgeship in Queen Anne's County.

Observers have mentioned state Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., Worcester Democrat, as a potential candidate, but he said last week he does not expect to run next year.

"I'm very happy in the Senate," said Mr. Mathias, a former delegate who spent 10 years as mayor of Ocean City.

Mr. Mathias said he has not heard much buzz about other Democrats challenging Mr. Harris but thinks the party could win the seat in future years, under the right circumstances.

"I think it's all about the person, and if we can get less about the affiliations, things will be fine." he said. "But would we like the numbers to be better? Sure."

While Republicans could control the 1st District for years to come, they are not necessarily happy with the change, said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican.

Mr. Pipkin accused the governor of packing Republicans into the district to keep them out of other districts and argued that many Baltimore and Carroll communities now in District 1 have little in common with its core residents on the Eastern Shore.

He also downplayed any assertions that the district's congressional seat will remain safe for Republicans.

"Every election is unique," he said. "Clearly, the district has some leanings, but any individual in the right place at the right time can do something."

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