When thinking about the Eastern Shore’s historical relationship with the 1st Congressional District of Maryland, it’s important to keep one thing in perspective. The Shore, until recently, had mostly been served by one of their own residents for more than 150 years. From the election of James Stewart from “Tobacco Stick” in Dorchester County in 1854 to the defeat of Frank Kratovil from Stevensville in 2010, the 1st was always considered to be an Eastern Shore seat.
And, for the most part, the Shore had taken that responsibility seriously by electing men (no woman has yet to serve) of strong moral fiber and, at times, real political courage.
From Cecil County’s abolitionist John Creswell in 1862 to Easton’s Harry Covington, the founder of Covington & Burling, former Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton, and more recently, Kennedyville’s thoughtful and independent Republican Wayne Gilchrest, the Shore has a record of sending some of their very best and brightest to Washington.
But that all ended in 2010.
The moderate Democrat Kratovil could not survive the anti-Obama wave that election year. While Kratovil did not vote for the Affordable Care Act, a key issue in that election, GOP conservative Andy Harris was able to attract enough new voters from the far right, many of whom were motivated by such grassroots movements as the Tea Party, to win with 54% of the vote.
The 2010 loss was a big deal for the Eastern Shore beyond the loss of Queen Anne’s Frank Kratovil. It was also the year that a decennial census took place which would make up the data used to help Maryland draw new Congressional districts for the 2012 election year.
With Democrats holding both legislative houses and the Governor’s office in Annapolis, senior party leaders drew up new boundaries in Maryland that many critics felt were designed to secure more congressional seats in Congress for Democrats. By moving high concentrations of predictably Republican voters from Carroll, Baltimore, and Harford Counties into just one district, the theory went, the odds improve for the Democrats in the other districts.
And that one district happened to be the 1st Congressional District.
Now separated from the Shore’s historically-linked sister counties of St. Mary and Anne Arundel, the new 1st arches across the top of the Chesapeake and moves west while cutting into Carroll, Baltimore, and Harford Counties to guarantee this super-safe Republican seat.
While the courts are now reviewing the constitutionality of that new districting plan, by November 2012 the results were clear. Congressman Harris beat his Democratic opponent with now 70% of the vote, which eventually placed it on the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index as the 86th most reliable Republican district in the United States.
With that kind of outcome, Maryland GOP leaders would normally not worry too much about an upcoming mid-term election, but then Donald Trump became president.
The political maverick had accomplished what experts said was impossible in 2016 by defeating more than a dozen Republicans in GOP primaries and ultimately Hillary Clinton in the general election. With majorities of both the House, and now the Senate, the Trump mandate, however modest it was, based on an electoral college victory rather than the popular vote, was seen by the winners as a rallying cry for significant social and economic change in Washington.
Some of that change has now taken place. The Trump administration has wasted little time in the dismantling of the EPA, cut thousands of regulations, provided significant corporate tax relief, introduced an “America First” foreign policy, and dozens of other actions, large and small, that cumulatively may add up to be the largest deconstruction of the federal government in our history.
If those changes turn out to be what the voters truly wanted, the Republicans would have much to crow about as they enter into the 2018 midterms, and that would include Congressman Harris.
But these policy victories have come with unprecedented collateral damage. Since taking office, the new president has used his bully pulpit to literally bully his opponents, foreign leaders, ethnic groups, a national war hero, and even celebrities through his Tweeter feed and in public appearances. He is also considered to be by most Americans, including members of his own party, highly capricious in judgment and lacking moral authority, while at the same time is the primary story of a federal investigation of 2018 campaign collusion and obstruction of justice. The fact that he is also being sued by two women he may have had affairs with would make even the most objective onlooker believe the President is a major liability in the fall election.
For Congressman Harris, this is especially problematic since he has not only been a steadfast defender of the President, his own moral compass was thrown into question when he endorsed Alabama’s Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate well after credible reports showed the former judge’s history of having intimate relationships with underaged girls.
With all that in mind, the Spy now believes that, despite the remarkable political engineering it took to guarantee a safe Republican 1st District, the projected outcome in November is hardly certain.
That is why the Spy will be taking a special interest in the 1st District throughout the rest of the year. Over the next six months, we will be profiling Democrats and Republicans from most of the counties that make up the 1st to understand these very different communities and the people that live in those communities.
We start today with our profile of Carroll County through the lens of the member of the Democratic Central Committee there. The following month will be an active Republican in another county. Our stakeholder interviews will alternate between the two parties until the election takes place.
While the Eastern Shore may never return to a time when their U.S. Congressperson is from the Eastern Shore, and we hope that is not the case, that will not limit the Shore’s real interest in the 2018 election. We can only hope that our Spy coverage will only help further a thoughtful and civil conversation about how it will be represented in the future.