Andy Harris yet to shake primary threat
Things have been looking up for Andy Harris this fall. The Republican lawmaker from Baltimore County has been steadily, if quietly, preparing for a high-profile rematch against Democrat Frank Kratovil, the freshman congressman from Maryland's (mostly) Eastern Shore district.
For a variety of reasons, including the district's proximity to the nation's capital, the Kratovil re-election contest is sure to attract unusually intense media scrutiny. It will likely be viewed as a case study of the challenges Democratic incumbents are facing in the first mid-term election of Barack Obama's administration, when, history says, the president's party will lose a significant number of House seats.
The National Republican Campaign Committee, the party's main campaign arm for House races, has been tacitly backing Harris for months (though the committee doesn't usually get involved in contested primaries). A recent poll, which deserves to be viewed skeptically since it was paid for by Harris's campaign, gave the NRCC a fresh opportunity to point out that Kratovil ranks among the most endangered Democratic incumbents in the nation.
Gloomy economic forecasts of continued high joblessness throughout 2010 can only make things tougher for Kratovil, who could well be the underdog by the time of next November's vote.
Republican Harris has improved his campaign operation since narrowly losing to Kratovil in 2008, though his fundraising has been less than stellar and Kratovil is continuing to stockpile cash.
Still, what's not to like if you are Andy Harris, a darling of the national party in a race against a highly vulnerable incumbent Democrat?
Answer: the threat of another bitter primary fight that, for whatever reason, you can't quite shake.
State Sen. E. J. Pipkin, a centrist Republican with considerable financial resources, continues to stalk the more conservative Harris and may become a dangerous primary opponent.
Prominent Maryland Republicans are convinced that Pipkin will enter the race. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a Harris backer, hinted in a recent interview that he had failed in an effort to talk Pipkin out of running and prevent a primary fight.
"I've tried to be peacemaker," Ehrlich said. "I've failed miserably to this point."
Pipkin himself has steadfastly declined to reveal his intentions, while remaining politically active in the district.
There has been speculation that Pipkin could announce his plans some time in December, though there seems to be no particular magic about that month (in fact, politicians usually try to avoid intruding on the holidays; Ehrlich, a potential candidate for governor, may well wait until early next year to announce his 2010 plans).
Harris supporters, and some neutral Republicans, believe Pipkin would have a difficult time winning a primary, with social conservatives expected to back Harris by a wide margin. Motivating moderates, who may not have the same voting intensity as Tea Party activists, would be one of Pipkin's challenges.
Regardless of how competitive Pipkin proved to be, the combination of a contested Republican primary and a late primary election date (Sept. 14, 2010) would, at the very least, complicate matters considerably for Harris, if he won the Republican nomination.
He'd have very little time to restock his campaign bank account for the seven-week general election contest against Kratovil. The national party would come to Harris's aid with heavy financial support, though there will be plenty of competition for that money from dozens of other Republican challengers around the country. Whether Ehrlich decides to run, or not, will also affect Republican turnout in the November election.
Republicans remember only too well what happened in 2008, when a nasty primary fight unseated moderate Republican incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (who endorsed Kratovil) and weakened Harris to the point that he was incapable of winning. Harris had almost nine months after the February primary to patch things up inside the Republican Party but couldn't, and he lost on the same day that Republican nominee John McCain carried the district by nearly 20 percentage points over Obama.
Obama, naturally, won't be on the ballot next fall, which will shrink Democratic turnout everywhere, including in the First District (history suggests that Republican turnout won't drop by as much), complicating Kratovil's task. That's good news for Republicans, assuming that the Republican nominee doesn't face another mutiny from supporters of a losing primary candidate.
Some Republicans play down the notion that a party split cost them the First District seat last time. They maintain that Harris would be a congressman today, were it not for a Libertarian candidate from the Eastern Shore, Richard Davis, who siphoned off enough votes to assure a Republican defeat.
Davis, a dentist from Hurlock, in Dorchester County, got more than 8,800 votes and Harris lost by less than 2,900 last year. And he will be on the ballot again in 2010 as the nominee of the Libertarian Party of Maryland in the First District congressional election.
National analysts are already predicting that an angry electorate will punish both Democrats and Republicans next year by backing third party and independent candidates instead. Such forecasts, often made over the years, seldom pan out.
Still, with Pipkin lurking on the sidelines, a third-party candidate already headed for the ballot and Kratovil getting 11 more months to persuade his constituents that he's earned another term, the ingredients of a close race may be falling into place, and Harris can hardly take the election for granted.