Friday, November 5, 2010

Election 2010: A Frank Farewell

Not much room
for a moderate
in 2010 America

I mourn the political passing of Frank Kratovil -- not so much for who he was, a conservative Democrat pandering as best he could to a Republican-leaning Maryland congressional district, but for the loss of his party's seat in the House of Representatives.

Not that it was unexpected. His election in 2008 was a fluke brought on by the first political earthquake tremors of the GOP's rightward swerve, as the respected moderate incumbent Republican Wayne Gilchrest lost in the primary to the extremely conservative state Sen. Andy Harris.

Hard feelings? In the general election, Gilchrest, a former high school teacher, crossed party lines and endorsed Democrat Kratovil to succeed him in the First District -- which covers Maryland's entire and largely rural Eastern Shore, but is overwhelmed in population by a largely affluent strip of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay.

Kratovil, a county prosecutor from the eastern side, won by a margin of less than 1 percent, and evidently not on the coattails of Barack Obama -- the district favored by a much wider margin the GOP presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Two years later, the Gilchrest Effect seems to have faded. According to the unofficial election night tally, Harris took nearly 55 percent of the votes -- 146,272 to 111,237 -- in making Kratovil a one-term congressman.

It was one of the most expensive congressional races in the nation, as Democratic supporters put up millions of dollars in an attempt to save Kratovil's seat -- and Republican supporters similarly fueled Harris' campaign.

Harris, an anesthesiologist whose right-wing views set him apart even from others in the state legislature's minority party, among other things opposes gay rights and abortion, wants to roll back the Democrat-pushed health care reforms, and wants to make sure tax rates for rich folks remain low.

His television ads were subtly ugly -- the one that seemed to air most frequently even had a racist feel to it. Three figures shrouded in darkness, but one with distinctive-looking ears seems obvious... and as the scene slowly brightens, we see it is Obama, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Kratovil.

Kratovil voted with Pelosi, voted for Pelosi, voted with Obama, the ads hammered, despite Kratovil's reputation as a conservative Democrat and his own ads stressing a political independence that had dampened the enthusiasm of liberal Democrats for him.

Overall, voter registration in this congressional district is almost even divided between the two major parties... a few more Democrats, but just a few. This in a state that is solidly Democratic, by a 2-1 margin, and one of the most liberal in the United States. Yet the district has usually leaned toward Republicans.

So party affiliation is not the key determinant here. And it makes you wonder why Kratovil could suffer so major a swing from his narrow win in 2008 to so great a loss two years later.

The outcome leaves Maryland's entire Eastern Shore without its own congressman. The area, whose nine counties include some with the lowest per-capita income in Maryland, can look forward to representation by a defender of the rich from the other side of the water.

The poorest county in Maryland, Somerset, voted only narrowly for Kratovil (3,436-3,265). And the Democrat's home county, the much more affluent Queen Anne's, easily preferred Harris (9,410-8,537).

So what were the voters thinking? Is it an Obama thing -- two years down the road, they flip-flop back to the right -- or a money thing? Is it the rich wanting to keep on getting richer while the poor get poorer? Is it simply a matter of who came out to vote on election day? Was it the vanishing of the Gilchrest Effect?

Is it the magic of the boiling Tea Kettle, and the ability of Republican strategists to brand the enemy... voted for Pelosi, voted with Pelosi, voted with Obama... even if, sometimes, he didn't.

There was no room for independence in 2010 America, no safe middle ground for a Democrat like Kratovil. He should have seen it coming from two years away -- having been tarred and targeted as a one-termer by opponents from the day he was narrowly elected.

In trying to tiptoe through the middle, Kratovil failed to establish a brand for himself -- much as the Obama administration wasted time in its first few months trying to work with Republicans, only to lose its post-election momentum and the potential of its once-overwhelming legislative majority.

Kratovil could have embraced being a Democrat. Instead, he hunkered down and pandered as best he could to an unforgiving political right.

In my 30 years living in Anne Arundel County, on the western side of the Chesapeake, Kratovil was the only congressional candidate to knock on my door and personally ask for my vote. That was back around October, 2007, when the Queen Anne's County state's attorney had just embarked on his congressional quest.

Without hinting at my views, I asked for his on two of what I consider liberal bellwether issues -- gay marriage and, on abortion, a woman's right to choose. His answers were as vague as he could make them.

I voted for him, without enthusiasm, because having Andy Harris as my congressman was unthinkable.

Not much has changed two years later. But this time around, the unthinkable has happened and Harris is heading to Washington.

Elsewhere, Maryland election results ran counter to the national trend. Six of its eight House seats were easily retained by liberal Democrats (one district, in Western Maryland, remains a Republican stronghold); ultra-liberal Barbara Mikulski overwhelmingly won a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, declared the victor even as the earliest returns showed unknown GOP opponent Eric Wargotz leading by 1,000 votes; and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley won an even bigger victory than polls had predicted in a rematch against Republican former Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.

O'Malley is already being talked about as a rising star in the Democratic pantheon.
Kratovil, meanwhile, is packing up his stuff and looking for a new job.

Maryland's Obama?

Among the keynote speakers at Gov. Martin O'Malley's re-election party Tuesday night, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, was his African-American lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown -- a man of charm and eloquence, but apparently a little lacking in his geographic acumen when it comes to Maryland.

Brown, almost 49, told of his pleasure at traveling across the state over the past four years as lieutenant governor, from the mountains of Western Maryland to the sandy shores of Wicomico County.

Trouble is, Wicomico is a little lacking in sandy shores. It's Worcester, one county to the east, that includes Maryland's ocean beaches. And you could see a few people in the crowd below the stage turning to each other, open-mouthed, at the gaffe.

Brown proudly introduced his parents -- his Swiss-immigrant mother and Jamaican-immigrant father -- and embraced his daughter and son, who seem close in age to the children of President Obama. A colonel in the Army Reserves, he is the highest-ranking elected official to have served on active duty in Iraq.

There's a strong chance, some observers believe, that O'Malley could resign to take another job -- on the national stage in the Obama administration, or as successor to Barbara Mikulski should she not complete her next term. In January, she will become the longest-serving female member of the U.S. Senate.

And Anthony Brown would become governor.

If not then, he could run for the job in 2014 -- but he likely won't be the only state official looking to move into the governor's mansion.

Among the other elected Democrats crowding on stage at the O'Malley celebration was another 2014 possible, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who was unopposed for reelection. "Doug'' Gansler, 48, seems to style himself much like the late Bobby Kennedy, who was U.S. attorney general in his brother John's administration.

Look for both of them to make as much noise as possible the next two years, jockeying for position.


Carlos said...

David...I think a big lesson from Kratovil's loss can be seen in the overall results where the blue dog caucus lost in the neighborhood of 60% of their contests. The progressive caucus, in contrast, lost only 3 of 70 seats. I think that's the big lesson for Obama as well...unfortunately I think he'll succumb to advice that tells him to try to out-republican the repubs...the outcome will be ugly to look at. Maybe he'll appoint Nancy P. his chief of staff; wouldn't that be something to see?!?

Avedon said...

Carlos is right.

And I think Mikulski wins because people believe she is "ultra-liberal", despite the fact that there's not much even close to "ultra-liberal" in her voting record. The Republicans label anyone who isn't a raving, right-wing mouth-foamer "liberal", but the fact is that old Barb has never broken to the left on anything and at best can be said to be not quite as right-wing as some of her right-wing Democratic colleagues.

But of course, what gets Barb the "ultra-liberal" label translates roughly as, "People suspect she's a dyke." And it might even be true, but you'd be amazed at how many conservatives you meet in gay bars.