The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress, fears being written off the map. Some say it could happen.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) speaks during a news conference with members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP, file)

Ten years ago, as Maryland Democrats sat down to redraw the state’s eight congressional districts, they considered making Republican members of Congress go extinct.

There were two in office at the time: brand-new Andy Harris on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Roscoe Bartlett in rural Western Maryland. As former governor Martin O’Malley (D) later admitted in federal court, Democrats ultimately decided just to go after Bartlett, if only because it was easier. And their plan worked: A Republican has not won that seat since.

Now, ahead of a new round of redistricting, Harris is fundraising off the possibility that he could be Democrats’ next — and last — Republican target. “Democrats are trying to REDRAW my congressional district to DEFEAT ME,” he claimed in a recent campaign mailer.

Political observers say Harris has good reason to be worried. And not only because Maryland Democrats have done this before.

Harris, an anesthesiologist from Cockeysville, Md., has drawn the ire of liberal Democrats for years, with a reputation locally as a crusader against marijuana legalization and abortion access in D.C. In recent months, his robust objection to the 2020 election results and full-throated support of former president Trump’s election falsehoods have made him a new kind of pariah, prompting dozens of elected state Democrats to demand his resignation.

That won’t happen. But with a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly and the power to draw congressional lines squarely in their corner, the looming redistricting process offers Democrats another option: They could effectively just fire him instead, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

“Andy Harris is absolutely in danger of being written right out of Congress when these new districts are drawn, and I’m sure he is aware of that. And there is not much he can do to stop it,” Eberly said. “He’s sort of a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party … he’s probably put a target on his back.”

Harris himself has benefited from partisan gerrymandering during his six terms in office. He has won every race for reelection in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District by more than 20 points, a testament to both the strength of socially conservative voters in the largely rural district and to the Democrats’ decision a decade ago to pack as many Republicans into it as possible.

A few significant changes to those lines could create a whole new race. And with the House Democratic majority at risk in 2022, Eberly and other redistricting experts say Democrats will want to do what they can to counter Republican gerrymandering elsewhere. Republican legislatures with control of redistricting far outnumber states where Democrats control the process, several of which — including Virginia have transitioned to independent redistricting commissions.

“Democrats’ calculus for holding onto the House in 2022 depends on Maryland,” said Dave Wasserman, a redistricting analyst and U.S. House editor at Cook Political Report.

Citing private conversations with Democrats involved in Maryland’s redistricting strategy, Wasserman said he thought it was not just possible, but likely, that Democrats could go for the 8-0 shutout.

“Harris could be the last Republican elected in Maryland to federal office for a generation,” he said.

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Maryland state Democrats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue has become so controversial, said the focus will be to create fairer maps in the face of criticism from groups like Common Cause, which labels Maryland as “one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation.”

RepresentUs, an anti-gerrymandering advocacy group, rated Maryland’s potential for partisan gerrymandering this cycle “extreme” in a May report, citing state Democrats’ unabridged control over the outcome.

“Would we love to have an eighth member who is a Democrat in Congress? Sure,” said a state lawmaker who will play a role in the process. “But, no, I think our primary focus is trying to make sure our maps look less gerrymandered."

The focus is to “keep up where the state population has gone,” the lawmaker said. “If anything, we don’t want to lose the seven we have.”

Standing on principle

Harris will be running in 2022 as a sort of encore, breaking his pledge to limit himself to six terms in what could turn out to be an unusually exciting race.

“If President Trump had won reelection, I would have felt enough of my mission was accomplished to step aside,” Harris, who declined an interview for this story, said in a written statement to The Washington Post.

A Navy veteran and the son of immigrants from Hungary and Poland, Harris spent more than a decade in the Maryland Senate before winning a seat in Congress in 2010. Since then, he has proven one of its most socially conservative members, and an unwavering Trump loyalist.

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He has railed against “socialism,” universal health care or free education in America, describing his parents’ fleeing “from behind the Iron Curtain” as a primary experience shaping his political worldview.

On some votes in Congress he has broken with the vast majority of Republicans: He opposed naming a North Carolina post office after Maya Angelou — calling her a “communist sympathizer” — and an opposing a resolution condemning the Myanmar coup. Instead of Myanmar, he said at the time, Congress should focus on “COVID positive illegal aliens being dispersed into our communities.”

In October, he voted “present” on a bipartisan resolution condemning QAnon, the baseless extremist ideology that the FBI has designated a domestic terrorism threat. And in June, he joined a small minority of Republicans to vote for the second time against awarding Capitol Police and D.C. police officers congressional medals of honors for defending the Capitol on Jan. 6. His statement said he objected to “partisan charged language found in this bill.”

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Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Harford), a former aide to Harris and a top Republican in the Maryland General Assembly, said Harris is unafraid to stand on his principles. In her view, that is why he has become a target of Democrats.

“Partisan Democrats don’t like a Republican who is conservative and not afraid to be conservative,” she said.

Heather Mizeur, a former Maryland delegate seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Harris next year, said her campaign was motivated by the lawmaker’s actions before and after Jan. 6 — including opposing the congressional medals of honor. Harris nearly got into a physical confrontation on the House floor on the night he objected to election results. He set off a magnetometer near the House chamber while carrying a concealed gun two weeks after the Capitol breach.

“Consistently he’s standing on the side of the most fringe elements of his party,” said Mizeur, who represented liberal Takoma Park, Md., in the statehouse but now runs an organic farm with her wife on the Eastern Shore.

A prolific grass roots fundraiser who sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014, Mizeur has raised more than $350,000 for this race, far outpacing Harris in the first quarter of 2021. She said Harris’s campaign mailer worrying about being defeated “shows Andy Harris is scared, and he should be.” But she denied redistricting in any way motivated her to run.

No moral high ground

Maryland GOP Chairman Dirk D. Haire scoffed at the idea that Mizeur could have a shot in the deep-red 1st district. And he said statehouse Democrats would be reckless to go for an 8-0 shutout — particularly considering Maryland’s recent history with gerrymandering court battles.

After state Democrats reconfigured the congressional map to oust Bartlett in 2011, they faced years of litigation that ultimately led to a Supreme Court fight with national implications.

In 2019, the justices declined to throw out the map, saying federal court was not the proper avenue for partisan gerrymandering claims. The decision was a major blow to advocates of redistricting reform.

Both Haire and Szeliga said that if Democrats go after Harris’s seat, they should expect another lawsuit.

Harris said in a statement that he would not have a problem with making his district more competitive — if Gov. Larry Hogan’s independent redistricting commission was drawing the lines.

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Hogan (R) created the commission this year and charged it with submitting fairer, more compact congressional and legislative maps to the General Assembly, which is expected to hold a special session on redistricting in late fall. But the legislature does not have to accept the maps the commission recommends and can draw its own.

Two former state lawmakers, with help from a former Hogan aide, recently created a bipartisan nonprofit group to pressure lawmakers to accept the commission’s maps.

Members of Congress are expected to have input on the new map later this year. Any attempts to make the 1st district more competitive would likely depend on the willingness of Democratic incumbents to make their districts more competitive, too.

At least one, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), said he would be in favor, even if it meant losing some Democratic voters in his own district.

“Nobody owns his or her seat, and everybody has to run for them, and that means we want a competitive process,” Raskin said. The “extreme gerrymandered nature” of Harris’s district, Raskin added, frees him from needing to compromise on issues in Congress.

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Raskin questioned why Harris did not back the federal For the People Act if he is concerned about the issue of partisan gerrymandering. The broad election-law overhaul — which passed the House without any Republican support — includes anti-gerrymandering provisions that would set up independent redistricting commissions nationwide.

Harris said in a statement that when it comes to gerrymandering he supports "states’ rights to choose their redistricting processes.”

The bill’s House sponsor and chief architect is Rep. John Sarbanes (D), who ironically represents Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, one of the most awkwardly gerrymandered in the nation. In an interview, Sarbanes said he has not put any thought into redistricting in his home state because he has been too focused on trying to pass the bill in the Senate — where all 50 Republicans have lined up against it.

Their opposition makes sense, Wasserman said, because nationwide, more GOP-majority state legislatures are drawing district lines than Democratic-majority legislatures. In other words, Republicans in general have more to gain from a gerrymandered process.

But the opposite is true in Maryland — which may explain why that state’s Republicans are touting a nonpartisan process, and most Democrats are not.

“Neither party,” Wasserman said, “can claim a moral high ground on gerrymandering.”