Gilchrest Breaks With the GOP In Md. 1st District Endorsement

Frank M. Kratovil Jr., left, a Democrat, speaks with Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) before a news conference in which Gilchrest endorsed Kratovil.
Frank M. Kratovil Jr., left, a Democrat, speaks with Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) before a news conference in which Gilchrest endorsed Kratovil. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
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By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who lost a bitterly fought Republican primary in February, broke ranks with his party yesterday to endorse Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. as the man who should take his place in Congress.

"I learned in the jungles of Vietnam the kind of person you want next to you," said Gilchrest, a veteran who served nine terms in Congress. "You want someone with competency, integrity and courage. To me, that's Frank Kratovil."

The race for Maryland's 1st District, which covers the Eastern Shore and straddles the Chesapeake Bay to include portions of Anne Arundel County, is drawing national attention. Democrats, who have promised to pour money and resources into the campaign, see it as a possible gain.

Kratovil, the Queen Anne's County state's attorney, said Gilchrest's endorsement, announced during a campaign stop at City Dock in Annapolis, is a sign that Republican state Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) is out of step with the district that is majority Democratic. He said Harris is more loyal to the conservative wing of the GOP than he is to constituents of the district.

"People are tired of politicians making decisions based on politics and rhetoric handed to them by their party," said Kratovil, who called Harris an "ultra-right" candidate. "Were I facing a moderate and, in my view, reasonable Republican in this race, the congressman might not be standing here with me."

The GOP primary, marked by tough attack ads on television, left bruised feelings. Harris aides said he reached out at least eight times to Gilchrest after the election but the pair have yet to speak.

Yesterday, they said Gilchrest's endorsement showed Kratovil would mean business as usual in Congress.

"Andy got into the race after he saw Congress heading in the wrong direction," said Harris spokesman Chris Meekins. "He ran against an 18-year incumbent, which in itself shows a willingness to challenge the old and bring change. With Gilchrest's endorsement, Frank Kratovil obviously represents more of the same."

A moderate who frequently challenged party leaders, Gilchrest severely strained any remaining ties with the GOP with his endorsement. Maryland GOP Chairman James Pelura said that "many Republicans will view his decision as a betrayal."

Gilchrest said he made his decision to support Kratovil like he did all his votes in Congress, by thinking independently and probing the issues.

"I didn't make this decision out of bitterness," he said. "I made it based on Frank Kratovil's values and beliefs."

Political scientist Harry Basehart said the endorsement "may help Kratovil with the independents and moderate Republicans" but that "in the end, the effect of Gilchrest may hinge on how much he really does for Kratovil. Is it just an endorsement, or does it mean fundraisers and calls to voter lists?"

Kratovil aides said that Gilchrest will appear in a TV ad for Kratovil that will run on area cable channels during this week's GOP convention and that he will actively campaign for him until Election Day.

Although there are slightly more Democratic than GOP registered voters, the district has leaned conservative and has mostly voted Republican in national races. Experts watching this year's election are unsure how geographic loyalties will break: Kratovil and Gilchrest are from the Eastern Shore, and Harris is from Baltimore County, on the western side of the bay.

For his part, Harris is attracting the attention of GOP national leaders who recognize the district has become a battleground. Next week, former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney is headlining a $1,000-per-person fundraiser for Harris in Baltimore.

"It is still an uphill battle for Kratovil. This is a very conservative seat," said Michael J.G. Cain, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "But Gilchrest was very beloved in the district. This is definitely an arrow Kratovil needs in his quiver to try to overcome Harris's advantage."

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