By GRAHAM MOOMAW
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON – Rep. Frank Kratovil has broken ranks with the Democratic Party on key legislation throughout his first term, but whether that independence is enough to win re-election in Maryland’s contentious 1st District is the question as the 2010 election cycle ramps up.
Kratovil, D-Stevensville, has sided with Republicans against the 2010 budget, health care reform and a recent federal debt limit hike, as well as a new jobs bill. On each vote, Kratovil cited his dedication to a balanced budget as the main reason for his opposition.
Across the country, moderate Democrats are trying to carefully toe the line between positioning for re-election in swing districts and going along with the agenda of the Democratic leadership.
The national political climate has changed dramatically since Kratovil captured the longtime Republican seat in 2008. Democrats are on edge after a wave of voter anger and disillusionment led to major Republican victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts.
Kratovil will need to promote his independent voting streak during his re-election battle, where he’s expected to face a rematch with Republican state Sen. Andy Harris.
In 2008, Harris ousted former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the Republican primary by branding the incumbent as too moderate. In a final act of political independence, Gilchrest endorsed Kratovil, saying he would rather have another moderate as his successor.
Kratovil defeated Harris by fewer than 3,000 votes. The rematch is expected to be among the nation’s most competitive races, and that is sure to bring extra scrutiny to the voting record of the freshman incumbent.
Michael Cain, the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College, said Kratovil’s ability to convince voters of his independence will be crucial in a district that went firmly for McCain in 2008.
“I don’t think he can stay too close to the Democrats,” said Cain. “I think it’s very important that he demonstrates the kind of independence that Wayne Gilchrest exhibited.”
The issue of government spending is likely to be a big factor in Kratovil’s district, Cain said, because, despite its moderate sentiments on environmental and social issues, on fiscal issues it remains standard Republican territory.
“The question is what will be the prevailing sentiment in the country next November?” Cain said. “Will it be this anti-incumbent anger about anyone serving in Congress? If that’s the case, then I think the Democrat is going to have a very hard time retaining that seat.”
As the Democratic Party’s focus shifts from health care reform to safer election-year issues like deficit reduction and job creation, Kratovil said he sees some of the initial proposals as a good start, but stronger action is needed in order to seriously change the way Washington spends money.
Kratovil applauded the passage of pay-as-you-go legislation that requires Congress to offset new spending with savings created elsewhere and said the proposed freeze on non-security discretionary spending is at least a step in the right direction.
“The president talked about a freeze, we’re looking at a percentage of cuts,” Kratovil said in an interview.
The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 54 moderate-to-conservative House Democrats to which Kratovil belongs, released a “blueprint for fiscal reform” in late January that calls for spending caps and creating commissions to identify wasteful government programs.
By making government programs compete for strictly limited amounts of funding, Kratovil said, Congress would be forced to make tough choices about where it can afford to spend.
“You can’t continue to do everything. It could be that some of these programs are decent programs, but wouldn’t be considered top priorities,” said Kratovil. “In terms of specific ones, I don’t know yet. The key is prioritizing, and I don’t think we’re doing that.”
Though he declined to identify any specific programs to cut, Kratovil said national security and education should be top priorities.
Earlier this month, Kratovil introduced legislation to require audits for recipients of earmarked federal funding.
Some liberal Democrats have criticized the idea of cutting back on spending during a recession, arguing that it could impede the government’s efforts to help the economy recover.
President Obama has called for another jobs bill to be sent to his desk as soon as possible. When the House passed a $154 billion jobs bill in December, Kratovil was one of 38 Democrats to vote against it.
“I’m reluctant to support any additional bills like that until I’m convinced we’ve reached the peak of the stimulus, and I don’t think we have,” Kratovil said.
Kratovil said the “crazy” increases in discretionary spending levels have played a part in what has been a troubling period for Democrats, but spending won’t be the main issue in the 2010 elections.
“I think these issues of spending are important. I think we need to do something about it,” Kratovil said. “But ultimately, I think the issue that controls the perception of the Democrats is the economy.”
Rather than spending more on another stimulus measure, he said, the best way for Washington to help the economy is to let the first stimulus work and make it easier for small businesses to get loans.
“I don’t believe that the government has no role,” said Kratovil. “At the same time, I don’t think that we can do everything.”
Harris said Kratovil’s claim to be a strong believer in fiscal responsibility rings hollow.
“To try to corral the horse after it’s out of the barn is a little too late,” Harris said.
Harris pointed to Kratovil’s votes for the $787 billion stimulus bill and cap-and-trade climate legislation as causes for concern to district voters.
He also rejected the idea that commissions should help Congress figure out where to cut spending.
“The fact of the matter is, people go to Congress to actually appropriate,” Harris said. “It shouldn’t take a commission to give you guidance.”
Harris said that even though Kratovil’s voting record may appear to show an independent streak, his votes haven’t been effective at blocking Democratic legislation he disagrees with.
“My congressman has yet to vote against a bill that is actually defeated,” said Harris. “All the safe votes were taken. I’m not sure if that’s the mark of a true independent.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee recently included Harris on a list of “Young Guns” whom the NRCC has singled out as strong contenders worthy of national grooming.
When asked whether he’s feeling the pressure of being targeted, Kratovil shrugged it off.
“People are not concerned about me and Andy Harris,” said Kratovil. “We may think in D.C. that those elections are a big deal. To everyday folks, they’re not.”