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Kratovil tries to swim against the GOP tide

Frank Kratovil

Frank Kratovil

They hung him in effigy a year ago, protesting the health care overhaul.

A first-term Democrat, he had won narrowly in 2008, prevailing in one of the most conservative congressional districts in Maryland.

This year, he’s been seen as the poster child for endangered Democrats. He faces the same combative Republican from 2008, state Sen. Andy Harris, who has seemed to be riding the anti-incumbency wave.

But more recently, Rep. Frank Kratovil is beginning to look to some observers like he might be capable of holding back the GOP tide in the geographically bifurcated 1st District. The district now stretches beyond its historic Eastern Shore base to include parts Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Kratovil was endorsed last week by the National Rifle Association — a laurel of eye-catching significance to conservative voters ever vigilant against repeal or perceived threats to gun rights.

He voted against the health care bill and, generally, has compiled a voting record thought to be in keeping with his district.

He’s been a pragmatic representative of his constituents, departing from doctrinaire opposition to things like budget earmarks — the setting aside of money for special projects seen as “pork.” Using this device, he was able to get $400,000 for a CT scanner needed by the recently opened Queen Anne’s Emergency Center just east of the Bay Bridge.

“You hear all these discussions of earmarks and how terrible they are,” he said. “My view is you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We do have to reform that system but we also need to recognize that there are projects that are worthy of that kind of funding.”

Last weekend, Republicans launched a series of campaign ads at vulnerable Democrats throughout the country. The Kratovil version said: “Frank Kratovil wants you to think he’s independent, but he voted to make Nancy Pelosi speaker and voted with Pelosi 84 percent of the time.”

Kratovil’s campaign responded immediately, accusing the GOP of twisting the facts.

“Frank Kratovil has a proven record of independent leadership and fiscal restraint. He has voted against more than $6 trillion in spending and is ranked one of the 10 most independent members of Congress,” said Jessica Klonsky, Kratovil’s campaign manager.”

Using the Republican methodology, she added, “Frank has voted with Minority Leader John Boehner 60 percent of the time.”

Ex-members of Congress this week — Republicans and Democrats — asked their former colleagues to throttle back on the rhetoric and radical propositions. Former Representatives John Porter, an Illinois Republican, and David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, urged “a change in rhetoric and tone that can lead to a focus on problem-solving. This needs to begin now, especially as we head into the heat of the 2010 campaign.”

Even if the rhetoric cools, Kratovil still faces an uphill struggle to win re-election. He barely won two years ago in one of the most Democratic years in decades. Voters around the country this year have been willing to throw out moderate Democratic and Republican office holders for the offense of being incumbents. And much of the turn-out energy has been on the right side of the political spectrum.

But Kratovil seems to have several things going for him:

1) His own hard work, apparent through diligent constituent service and countless local appearances. 2) The campaign style of his opponent, State Sen. Andy Harris of Baltimore County. The hard-right conservative offended some 1st District Republicans with harsh campaigning against Wayne Gilchrest in the 2008 GOP primary. Gilchrest, a folksy moderate, endorsed Kratovil after the primary and some of his Republican supporters raised money for the Democrat.

In Congress, Kratovil has been a moderate-to-conservative member, joining the conservative Blue Dog Democratic coalition, That stance has been historically well-suited to the district. Former 1st District congressmen Roy Dyson, Tom McMillan and Gilchrist all served in this mode.

Kratovil’s Democratic patrons in Congress — principally House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer — have given him latitude to leave the party reservation on critical matters. Even as votes for the health care bill were difficult to secure, Kratovil voted against it with apparent impunity.

The candidate is clearly traversing the proverbial tight rope. He has to hope that Democratic voters will have as much patience with him as Hoyer and Pelosi.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His e-mail address is