- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland Democrats are struggling to win over the traditionally Republican 1st Congressional District despite a favorable national tide and the defection of incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who said Tuesday that he would support the Democratic challenger.

Mr. Gilchrest, long considered a maverick and moderate Republican, broke ranks with his party to support Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. over Republican state Sen. Andrew P. Harris for the seat.

“I don’t see this as crossing party lines,” Mr. Gilchrest said at a morning news conference announcing his support for Mr. Kratovil, the Queen Anne’s County prosecutor. “Frank, his wife, and his four kids represent to me the kind of family with the kind of courage they will take to Washington to be an independent voice for the district.”

As part of his campaign’s strategy to paint himself as a Democrat who would operate independently of his party’s leadership in Congress, Mr. Kratovil has attacked Mr. Harris as a partisan who is too conservative for the district.

“My opponent has literally been a poster child of extreme partisanship,” Mr. Kratovil said Tuesday.

But the Harris campaign, which has attempted to tie Mr. Kratovil to unpopular Democratic leaders, quickly fired back:

“I think Frank Kratovil is the poster child for [Gov.] Martin O’Malley’s policies,” said Harris campaign manager Chris Meekins. “So people have a choice of someone who has stood with Martin O’Malley, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or someone who has stood in staunch opposition to Martin O’Malley in Annapolis.”

Mr. Kratovil has done few public appearances with Mr. O’Malley since winning the Democratic primary. The governor’s popularity has slid since he pushed $1.4 billion in tax increases through a legislative special session. Yet the campaign has still relied on Mr. O’Malley and other top Democrats to raise money, most recently holding a high-dollar fundraiser with the Mr. O’Malley in Baltimore County.

Mr. Harris, a conservative Republican from the mainland part of the district, beat Mr. Gilchrest in a bruising primary by 10 percentage points. Since then, congressional race handicappers have favored Mr. Harris to win the seat, which was redrawn by state Democratic leaders 2002 to group Republican voters.

Democrats in U.S. House and Senate races across the nation are preparing for big wins in November, which would shore up their control of Congress. But little of that energy has made its way into the Maryland’s 1st District.

Speculation about Mr. Gilchrest’s endorsement had bubbled since the nine-term moderate congressman lost the Republican primary in February to Mr. Harris.

The Kratovil campaign has touted recent endorsements from two Eastern Shore Republicans and a staff supported by former Gilchrest campaigners, but many viewed the defection of Mr. Gilchrest as a key, long-awaited endorsement.

“Frankly, I’m humbled by the support I’m receiving, not only from the congressman, but from people across this district - Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Mr. Kratovil said.

The Harris campaign attempted to talk with Mr. Gilchrest six times after the elections, including a call from Mr. Gilchrest’s only other Republican colleague in the Maryland delegation, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a source in the Harris campaign said Tuesday.

But Mr. Gilchrest dismissed calls to get in line behind the Republican Party nominee after his February loss.

“Like anything, I take a little time to probe,” he said.

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