House GOP often has an ally in Eastern Shore's Kratovil

Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr., a former prosecutor, says he takes an evidence-based approach to deciding how to vote.
Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr., a former prosecutor, says he takes an evidence-based approach to deciding how to vote. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

If it weren't obvious already, Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr.'s final vote against health-care legislation last week made clear that the freshman Maryland Democrat is more than willing to go against his party. He has sided with Republicans nearly 200 times since President Obama's approval ratings started to dip last summer, more than almost any other Democrat.

Kratovil's stances appear to be part conviction and part calculation, a bet that the only way he can represent and carry his right-leaning Eastern Shore district is to prove that he is an independent voice willing to oppose Obama and congressional Democrats when necessary.

Thirty-three other Democrats, in other districts with other dynamics, made the same gamble last week. Brushing aside a call to history by Obama, they opposed the party's latest attempt to expand health-care coverage, a cause the party has pursued for decades. Their votes have unleashed a rash of action and analysis, with some no-voting Democrats immediately drawing primary challengers and others struggling to explain themselves.

Their challenge between now and November will be to reconcile with their party -- many of whose members refer to them as "traitors" or worse -- while finding a way to win over enough independents and Republicans to win reelection.

Interviews with nearly 50 voters across Kratovil's 1st Congressional District indicated the strategy carries enormous risks. Liberals who supported Kratovil during his first run -- which he won by fewer than 3,000 votes -- expressed profound disappointment over his vote against the health-care legislation and said he had given them little incentive to go to the polls to vote for him again.

"I am disgusted with him," said David Cowall, a doctor and hospice coordinator in Salisbury, who two years ago signed a letter with a dozen other health-care leaders endorsing Kratovil over his Republican opponent, another doctor. "I think some people have an opportunity once in their life to do something important, and I think he blew it."

In Queenstown, John Wright, 64, pointed to a Caterpillar dealership where he said workers don't have full health coverage as evidence that Kratovil should have done more. "I'm disappointed," he said. "There's a lot of people who need help."

In an interview, Kratovil acknowledged that his opposition to the party's health-care plan has weakened his support among Democrats. "I recognize that a number of people who campaigned for me are disappointed," Kratovil said. "That philosophical desire for change does have to be balanced with a pragmatic evaluation of the means to achieve it. And given where we are economically . . . that is where I tend to be a bit more conservative."

But it's an indication of the complexity of Kratovil's district that a good number of Democrats have no problem with his vote. Judd Vickers, who helped rally votes for Kratovil in Dorchester County two years ago and who is now the chairman of the county's Democratic Central Committee, was reluctant to criticize Kratovil for voting against the health-care bill.

"From polling in the district, it probably accurately reflects where the district is," Vickers said. "I know some Democrats who are actually enthused by his health-care vote. I'm not one of them, but we had such a diversity of opinions on our committee that we did not take a position" on the bill.

And at the CoffeeCat in Easton, reaction to Kratovil's vote was a footnote to overall excitement about the measure passing, and some said they were willing to give him a pass if it would help him win reelection in the fall.

Still, independents and moderate Republicans will probably determine the outcome of the election in Kratovil's district, which a liberal Republican represented for the 18 years before him and which John McCain won by 18 points in the 2008 presidential race. Many people said that they would have been motivated to vote against Kratovil had he supported the health-care legislation but that they aren't moved to back him just because he didn't.

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