Obama Wave that Swept Out Republicans Recedes


In House rematches, Democrats who were swept in on Obama's wake are fighting a strong opposing tide

((Bloomberg) — Democrat Frank Kratovil drafted on Barack Obama's popularity to capture his Maryland congressional seat in 2008. Now the Republican he defeated, Andy Harris, counts on opposition to the president to win a rematch. Harris is one of almost a dozen Republicans in competitive House races challenging the Democrats who beat them in 2008.

This and other rematches show how the campaign landscape has shifted, largely due to rising joblessness and a U.S. budget deficit the Congressional Budget Office says will reach $6.27 trillion in the next decade. Two years ago, Harris contended with a voter backlash against Republicans, the unpopularity of President George W. Bush, a worsening economy and the Mideast wars. This time, he says, Democrats are on the defensive.

"I just have this philosophy that the pendulum usually begins swinging back," Harris, a 53-year-old state senator and anesthesiologist, said in an interview. Speaking to workers at Nutramax Laboratories Inc., a pharmaceutical company outside Baltimore, Harris calls Obama's economic stimulus wasteful and the health-care plan "medical malpractice." He promises more "moderate, methodical" legislation under two-party rule if Republicans take the House. The rematches will help decide whether Republicans gain the 39 seats needed to win control.

Harris started planning his race in the Maryland district that includes the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay after losing to Kratovil by 2,852 votes, with 360,480 cast, in 2008. A Sept. 28-30 poll of 400 likely voters by the Hill newspaper found Harris supported by 43 percent, Kratovil, 40 percent, within the error margin of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Independence Stressed

Kratovil, a first-term representative and former prosecutor, is fighting to keep his seat with endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, both of which supported Harris two years ago. He stresses his independence from fellow Democrats, including his vote against the health-care overhaul.

"The national mood has some role in the election, but that's not the end of the story," Kratovil, 42, said in an interview. He said his 2008 win in a district which Republican presidential nominee John McCain carried with 58 percent of the voted showed his own appeal to voters. Still, he said "people have lost a little fire" because Obama isn't on the ballot.

Won By McCain

One other Democrat in a competitive House rematch represents a district McCain won by 52 percent in 2008. In McCain's home state of Arizona, Democratic Representative Harry Mitchell again faces Republican David Schweikert. Obama carried as much as 57 percent of the vote in the other rematch districts. In Ohio's Cincinnati area, Democratic Representative Steve Driehaus trails former Republican Representative Steve Chabot by double digits in opinion polls. Chabot is focusing on Driehaus's vote for the health-care law.

In northeast Pennsylvania, 13-term Democrat Paul Kanjorski is on the defensive over his 2008 vote for the $700 billion financial bailout as he faces Republican Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta. In upstate New York, Democratic Representative Mike Arcuri is in a close race against Republican businessman Richard Hanna, campaigning on Arcuri's vote for the 2009 economic stimulus. In many races, the Democrats' ability to show independence will decide whether they win, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Kratovil doesn't have a lot of room for error," Gonzales said.

Obama's Agenda

Kratovil supported much of Obama's agenda in 2008, including universal health care and middle-class tax relief. In office, he voted for the economic stimulus, a plan to stem greenhouse-gas emissions and a financial-rule rewrite. He opposed the final health-care bill in 2010 because he said it would create too much uncertainty for business during the recession.

He called for a two-year extension of Bush-era income tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest people, putting him in line with Republicans. While visiting a Pepsi Bottling Ventures plant in Salisbury this month, Kratovil accepted an award for helping keep a tax on soda pop out of the health-care law. He promised to curb government spending and taxes on business. "Probably the most votes I've taken against my party have related to budgetary issues," he said.

Unemployment Factor

Harris said economic issues that hurt Republicans in 2008 are now working in his favor amid stronger concern about unemployment. Maryland's jobless rate was 7.3 percent in August, compared with 4.6 percent two years earlier though well under September's national rate of 9.6 percent.

"There was fear of unemployment last time, but this time it's not fear, it's real unemployment with a lot of people saying there's no end in sight," Harris said. Harris cites other drags on his party in 2008: $4-a-gallon gasoline, the Iraq war and Bush's unpopularity Some predict an uphill battle for Kratovil. Carlton Bradshaw, 43, an independent from Delmar, said he will vote for Harris as he did two years ago because he wants Republicans to control the House to combat Obama's policies.

"I like Kratovil's voting record," he said. "His party affiliation is really the only reason I won't vote for him." Kratovil also has picked up support with his independence. "I don't like the fact that he voted for cap and trade, but he voted against health-care reform," said Angelo Monico, a Republican from Bel Air north of Baltimore. "That showed some backbone against his party."


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