Labels tell us a lot when we go to the supermarket but picking a political candidate is usually more complicated than picking the soup with the lowest sodium content. That’s why political labels or even party affiliations may be less important than geography for Cecil County voters this year.
Consider the 1st District Congressional race between Republican Andy Harris, of Baltimore County, and Democrat Frank Kratovil, of Queen Anne’s County on the Eastern Shore. Harris brands Kratovil a “liberal” and Kratovil’s ads say Harris is “way out there” on the right wing. So much for labels.
Harris upset incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the multi-candidate Republican primary by carrying counties on the Western Shore. The Eastern Shore was no-man’s land for Harris. Even in Cecil County, where Gilchrest had lots of GOP critics, Gilchrest beat Harris with 32.8 percent of the vote, in contrast to the 31.3 percent share Harris took in Cecil. (Gilchrest always had a harder time in his own party primary than he did in general elections, when he won considerable support from Democrats. Hardcore conservative Harris can’t expect comparable Democratic support in November.)
But Kratovil has his own problems in Cecil County. He lost the county in the primary to Christopher Robinson in a 4-way contest, with 30.2 percent of the vote to Robinson’s 32.9 percent. Yet Kratovil racked up solid margins in other Shore counties and the Baltimore County, Harford County and Anne Arundel County portions of the district.
Now Kratovil is leaning on what some pundits call the “Rockfish Republicans”—moderates on both the Eastern and Western Shore who supported Gilchrest in the past. Gilchrest himself has endorsed Kratovil as have several Republican county commissioners in Kent and Caroline counties on the Shore.
For the general election, Shore residents are a majority of the district’s electorate so if Shore residents voted purely on the basis of geography, Shore resident Kratovil would win. Of course, most people vote on other factors, like party label, and national issues like the economy or the war in Iraq.
But geography isn’t such a bad way to pick a horse in this race. Gilchrest had to drive over the Bay Bridge just about every night to come home from his Washington job. His Kennedyville house was down the street from a little grocery where locals could collar him on any problem, from the crab harvest to the closing of the soup factory in Chestertown.
Queen Anne’s county, Kratovil’s base, is a stretch from Cecil but it shares a lot of the same problems: Bay shoreline and pollution concerns, development pressure, transportation problems, and a lack of local jobs that forces residents to commute over a bridge to jobs on the Western Shore. Sound familiar?
Historically, the 1st District has been represented by a resident of the Shore, except for a brief hiatus when a rural Southern Marylander held the seat before Gilchrest. But this time, the choice is between a Shore resident and a suburban Baltimore County resident. We don’t think they set trot-lines in Baltimore County or know what it’s like to spend $8 or more in gas to travel long distances to buy groceries or get medical care.
So maybe the label or slogan that matters here is “Shore-nuff” or “Vote Local.”