- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2010

Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. had barely been sworn in to his Maryland congressional seat in January 2009 before Republicans were plotting to retake it.

In an ominous year for Democrats politically, the 42-year-old former state’s attorney is still on shaky ground, but the Kratovil campaign says internal polls it has commissioned show he is making a race of it against GOP state Sen. Andy Harris in a rematch of their ultra-close 2008 contest.

Mr. Harris, who handily won the GOP primary Tuesday, can point to other polls done earlier this year putting him in the lead, but the dueling surveys suggest that the race will not be a walkover in what is considered to be Maryland’s only competitive House race.

Mr. Harris boasts strong conservative credentials and is running with the textbook GOP anti-incumbent message of less government and no tax increases. But some say his equally conservative views on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are an uneasy fit in the mixed suburban-rural district long represented by moderate Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who endorsed Mr. Kratovil after losing the 2008 GOP primary.

Andy Harris lost two years ago because his out-of-touch agenda is wrong for the district. He should expect history to repeat itself this November,” said Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the main House Democratic campaign arm.

Still, Republicans remain confident that Mr. Harris will win a rematch that forecasters now rate either as “leaning GOP” or a tossup.

“Things are on track,” Andy Sere, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said before the primary. “Andy Harris doesn’t have to spend a lot on money right now. We’ve got a lot to work with alone in what Frank Kratovil faces.”

Mr. Sere promises an aggressive campaign, highlighting Mr. Kratovil‘s votes in favor of unpopular parts of the Obama agenda.

“After the primaries, you’ll see the two candidates engage each other, then things will continue to work in our favor,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Kratovil said he plans to stress his independence from the national party and his willingness to put the interests of his district first.

“I ran in 2008 promising to be an independent voice who would vote based on principle, not on party,” he told The Washington Times. “I think voters recognize that I’ve lived up to that pledge. I’ve been ranked as one of the 10 most independent members of Congress and have worked to make decisions based on common sense rather than politics.”

In Mr. Kratovil‘s first two TV ads, he also emphasizes his independence from the Washington establishment and his record as a lawmaker who “votes on facts, not politics.” President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are nowhere to be seen in the spots.

“It’s not about Democrats or Republicans,” he says in one ad. “It’s about common sense and doing what’s best for our families.”

The district - the entire Eastern Shore and parts of counties northeast of Baltimore - is considered promising GOP territory in a primarily blue state.

Mr. Kratovil‘s hopes for re-election took another blow earlier this month after a recent New York Times story that suggested that national Democratic Party officials were ready to cut loose him and three other House incumbents to shift resources on races they could win.

Officials at the DCCC promptly insisted the report was inaccurate.

“In each campaign mentioned, the DCCC has provided and continues to provide support,” said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Kratovil spokeswoman Jessica Klonsky said the prevailing national trends against the Democrats do not reflect the reality on the ground in the district.

“No one is going to argue this is not a tough race,” she said. “But a lot of people see this with a bird’s-eye view. On the ground, most people don’t see it that way. Mr. Kratovil has provided the independent leadership he’s promised.”

Mr. Kratovil has indeed found difficulty balancing his political self-interest against the need to toe the party line. He voted for Mr. Obama’s $814 billion stimulus package and the stalled cap-and-trade energy bill - both reviled by conservatives.

However, he voted against President Obama’s health care reform - a move that drew criticism from Democrats, but little gratitude from Republicans. The conservative Heritage Action for America group, as part of a national campaign, sponsored a radio ad criticizing him for not supporting an effort to force a House vote on repealing the health care law.

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