Josh Kurtz: To Be Frank

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Shortly after the New Year, House Democrats in Washington, D.C., held a summit on jobs and the economy. A week or so later, in conjunction with a Democratic think tank called Third Way, several House leaders held another.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the headliner at the Third Way summit, made sure that a junior colleague got some exposure there: Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), who against all odds won a very Republican Congressional seat on the Eastern Shore in 2008.

For Kratovil, it’s nice to have friends in high places. In the estimation of most independent analysts, he’s one of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents running for re-election this year. And why shouldn’t he be? He won his seat by just 2,800 votes in 2008, out of 360,000 cast. In a huge year for Democrats, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took 59 percent of the vote in Kratovil’s 1st Congressional district.

This year won’t be so kind to Democrats. Kratovil is in grave danger. The D after his name on the ballot is an even a bigger impediment this time around than it was two years ago. He’d just as soon not have anyone associate him with Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi or Martin O’Malley. Republicans will do everything they can to exploit those connections — even though Kratovil has tried to inoculate himself by voting against the Democratic health reform plan.

But to repeat, it’s good to have friends in high places. That D may be toxic in many ways, but it also comes with a decent political infrastructure, and money. Democrats may be out of favor with voters, but the national and state parties have a lot more money at their disposal than national and state Republicans do.

And the fact that he’s from Maryland — where he can exploit home-state ties with Hoyer, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and yes, Baltimore’s favorite daughter Pelosi — means that of all the vulnerable House Democrats across the country, Kratovil’s needs will be a particular priority of party leaders.

Kratovil may lose — but he may just win. If he does, help from Democratic leaders will be part of the reason. But another part will be that he is lucking out when it comes to his opponent.

Kratovil in all likelihood faces a rematch with state Sen. Andy Harris (R), a leading conservative voice in Annapolis for the past dozen years. In a bloody 2008 GOP primary, Harris seized the Republican nomination from long-time Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, who until his ouster was one of the last Republican moderates left on Capitol Hill (and an extremely nice man).

Harris had a message and a campaign team well-equipped to win an ideologically driven primary, but less so to win a general election. The animus of Gilchrest — who endorsed Kratovil (and Obama) — and many of his closest confidants hurt Harris. The fact that Harris came from Baltimore County and not the Eastern Shore did not endear him to voters in the heart of the district. And to the extent that there was a Democratic surge everywhere in 2008, that trickled down to Kratovil in the 1st district.

On top of all that, Harris just isn’t a very appealing candidate. He’s smart, yes. He’s hard working and serious and committed to his work as a physician and to his conservative principles. But he isn’t a warm and fuzzy guy. He’s self-righteous. He’s humorless. He’s unbending. These aren’t necessarily the best traits to have in politics. And there is still plenty of bitterness lingering from his challenge to Gilchrest. As one Republican strategist recently told me, “Harris can win. Any Republican can win this district. But only Harris can lose.”

Still, to be fair, Harris is in better shape now than he was two years ago. He’s battle tested. He’s more familiar to voters and more palatable to many on the Shore who may have been suspicious of him before. And he’s got a stronger political team in place.

If Kratovil survives in November, it may be a lot tougher for Republicans to take him out next time. Because with redistricting on the horizon, Democrats — assuming O’Malley is re-elected as governor — can do a lot to protect Kratovil in the future.

Redistricting is a wondrous thing, and Maryland governors have a lot of power to rig the boundaries. Even as House Republicans made historic gains nationally in 2002, the election after the last round of redistricting, Democrats were picking up two seats in Maryland thanks to the magic gerrymandering of then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D) and his mapmakers.

That gave Democrats a 6-2 advantage in the state’s Congressional election; it’s fair to say that the Democrats’ pickup of the 1st Congressional district last cycle was a gift that most party leaders never imagined getting. But it’s also fair to say that Democrats will do what they can to protect Kratovil’s seat if he can hang on this year.

According to Charlie Cook, the high priest of Congressional race handicapping, Kratovil’s district is an R+13 — a substantial natural advantage for Republicans. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s district, which is based in Western Maryland but runs east to Harford County, is also an R+13. Every other district in the state has a substantial Democratic advantage — from Rep. Donna Edwards’ (D) D+31 to Rep. John Sarbanes’ D+6.

But if some Democratic incumbents are willing to sacrifice some of their electoral cushions, Kratovil can be protected. The 1st district already comes across the Bay Bridge from the Eastern Shore, taking in parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

Instead of taking it to Baltimore County, why not drop it into parts of more liberal Prince George’s County? Hoyer could take in some African-American communities in Prince George’s that he gave up years ago. Van Hollen and Edwards could give up some of their Inside-the-Beltway communities in Prince George’s (Van Hollen might wind up representing parts of Frederick). Reps. Elijah Cummings (D) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D) and Sarbanes might be persuaded to take in some of the more conservative areas around Baltimore. Et voila! Kratovil is safe(r).

But first, he has to survive this year.

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

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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