In Md.'s 1st District, Rob Fisher runs as 'outsider' vs. Harris in GOP primary

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

NORTH EAST, MD. -- Here on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, Rob Fisher is testing uncharted waters: Can an "outsider" candidate beat an opponent who is better known, better funded and has the backing of much of his party establishment?

The answer will come Sept. 14, when primary voters choose between Fisher, the owner of a cyber-security firm, and state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, an anesthesiologist, for the Republican nomination in Maryland's 1st Congressional District. The winner will face freshman Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr., widely seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country.

Although he has never run for office, Fisher is making an electability argument: Harris narrowly lost to Kratovil in 2008, even though the district went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 19 points in the presidential race, so it's time to give another Republican a chance in a seat that represents the Eastern Shore plus portions of Anne Arundel County and the suburbs north of Baltimore.

"I am the only person who can beat Frank Kratovil," Fisher said in an interview last week.

Fisher's campaign is about his profile, not his platform. His first statement upon meeting potential voters is that he's a conservative Republican, his second that he's "not a career politician" -- an attempt to contrast himself with Harris, who has served in Annapolis for 12 years.

Fisher has trouble identifying any areas where his policy positions differ from Harris's, and he's not running overtly to the right (or left) of the 2008 nominee. Instead, he is gambling that the anti-insider mood of this election cycle will send primary voters into his camp and away from Harris, who was the insurgent candidate two years ago, unseating moderate nine-term Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the Republican primary.

Then, Harris was the troublemaker running against the party establishment. Now, national Republicans privately hope he prevails against the novice Fisher.

"The national mood is entirely different" than it was in 2008, Harris said last week, contending that President Obama's presence on the ballot helped Democrats even in conservative-leaning districts like this one. This year, he said, "there is a palpable feeling that people want a change" in policies.

Harris is confident enough about winning the nomination that he said he's focused "99 percent on Kratovil in November and 1 percent on the primary."

Turnout is typically low in midterm primaries, and Harris has one clear advantage: He's familiar. A survey done in July for Fisher's campaign put his name identification among likely primary voters at 36 percent; Harris was known by 95 percent of respondents.

With less than a month until the primary, Fisher is scrambling to erase that gap, pouring money into television advertising, first on cable stations and now on expensive broadcast channels in the Baltimore and Salisbury markets.

Fisher has spent about $400,000 of his own money and said he's willing to spend more -- "whatever it takes" -- to win the primary, and then, if he gets the chance, the general election. Fisher owns Secure Infrastructure Solutions, a cyber-security firm based in Woodbridge, and his personal financial disclosure form shows that he is worth between $1 million and $5 million.

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