Josh Kurtz: To Be Frank (Part 2)

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Somehow, incredibly, improbably, U.S. Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) is not dead yet.

He started the 2010 election cycle as one of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents in the country, and he’s still pretty high up on most handicappers’ lists of Democratic members of Congress who are expected to lose next week. If you were forced to put money on his rematch with state Sen. Andy Harris (R), you would wise to bet the chalk and assume Harris is going to prevail.

And yet…Kratovil just might win. Last week, a poll taken by Monmouth University showed Harris with an 11-point lead. But the Baltimore Sun on Monday released a poll with Kratovil and Harris tied, with 40 percent each. The poll of 520 likely voters was taken Oct. 15-20 and had a 4.3-percentage point margin of error.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continues to pour money into the race — $1.1 million as of Sunday, compared to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s $840,000 investment in Harris.

This isn’t just some home-state concession to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) or Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the DCCC chairman. House Democratic leaders aren’t the least bit sentimental when it comes to their spending decisions — they have already cut off more than half a dozen doomed incumbents, and are focused almost exclusively on playing defense this cycle after flipping more than 50 GOP seats in 2006 and 2008.

And Vice President Joe Biden is headlining a late fundraiser for Kratovil on Thursday (albeit in a Potomac home, not in the 1st District). He wouldn’t be bothering if the Democrats didn’t think there was some hope.

It still looks inevitable that the Democrats will lose control of the House. Republicans need to pick up 39 seats to take over, and with an unheard-of 100 seats now in play, almost all of them held by Democrats — who says democracy is dead? — all Republicans need is a success rate of about 45 percent to win the big prize.

But wouldn’t it be incredible if Kratovil’s seat eludes them?

Much as Democrats like to say it isn’t, much as they wish it wasn’t, this is a nationalized election. Voters aren’t carefully weighing whether they prefer the programs and platforms of the Democrats and the Republicans. The economy is sick, they’re worried as hell, and they’re going to take it out on the party that has held all the levers of power in Washington for the past two years — the Democrats. The weakest Democrats — those who represent districts that Barack Obama lost in 2008 — are the likeliest to fall on Election Day.

But somehow, incredibly, improbably, all politics may be local in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District.

That’s essentially what undid Harris the last time. After winning a contentious Republican primary over the moderate incumbent, Wayne Gilchrest, Harris, despite the GOP’s big advantage in the 1st District, found he really couldn’t gain traction. Gilchrest and his allies hated him, and cast their lot with Kratovil.

But more important, Harris was an outsider, a Baltimore County guy. And on the Eastern Shore, where most of the district’s voters reside, that made him suspect. The fact that Harris is caustic, pious and politically inflexible didn't exactly help his cause, either.

You can’t really call Kratovil the beneficiary of any kind of Obama surge. The president took just 40 percent of the vote in the 1st District — tied for the 14th lowest Obama percentage of any Congressional district represented by a Democrat. That’s not much better than the 36 percent that John Kerry got in the 1st as the Democratic White House nominee in 2004.

Obama’s numbers are even worse in the district now. According to the Monmouth poll, just 32 percent of voters view him favorably.

So why isn’t Harris putting Kratovil away? Kratovil has benefited from unlikely endorsements, from the NRA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others. Then again, Harris has been the beneficiary of a lot of outside advertising.

So you have to assume, once again, that Harris' outsider status on the Shore is hurting him.

This is a point that Kratovil will want to hit again and again in the final week of the campaign. So far, he hasn’t done that very often. One recent negative ad warns voters that Harris, in favoring a standardized national sales tax over other taxes, is going to raise people’s taxes. That’s a cookie-cutter approach that national Democrats are hitting lots of Republican candidates with, and it isn’t a bad move, considering the GOP is traditionally the party of lower taxes. But it doesn’t get to Harris’ greatest vulnerability.

It’s interesting to compare Kratovil’s political standing with the predicament facing his neighbor to the south, Glenn Nye, another freshman Democrat who represents the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the Virginia Beach area. Nye knocked off a Republican incumbent, thanks to a strong Obama performance in his district — Obama took 50 percent there compared to Kerry’s 42 percent in 2004. Nye is now trailing his Republican challenger in the polls — by 6 points in a media poll taken in late September.

Democratic insiders in Washington — and on the Shore — will tell you that Kratovil is more likely to survive than Nye. Incredible.

Even more incredible: if Kratovil wins next week, chances are he’ll be stronger two years from now. You can bet, with Democrats in control of the Maryland redistricting process, that they’ll do what they can to strengthen his position.

That will require some sacrifices from the other House Democrats in the state, who will be required to cede safe territory (all won with more than 72 percent last time and should all still win comfortably this year, despite the prevailing political winds). They may need some convincing – who wants to have to campaign if you can possibly avoid it? But with control of the House likely to be a closely fought battle again in 2012 and for the foreseeable future, it will be worth the sacrifice.

As for the Republicans, if they find they can’t oust Kratovil this time, they’ll be forced to ask themselves: how did we blow it? But then, that's a question they may be asking themselves all over Maryland the morning after Election Day.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.