In many ways, it was your standard Democratic fund-raiser in a Republican stronghold. On a recent Friday, a largely bleeding-heart contingent from Maryland's first congressional district--professors from the nearby liberal arts college, a left-wing lobbyist, a Sears scion turned Obama donor, the president of an environmental foundation--holed up in a Patton Boggs lawyer's Eastern Shore home to give their earnest young congressional candidate, state prosecutor Frank Kratovil, a sympathetic pat on the back. But somebody there was not like most of the others. When Kratovil's introducer stepped forward to give the toast, it was someone the crowd would recognize from other, perhaps less friendly contexts: the district's outgoing Republican congressman, Wayne Gilchrest. And Gilchrest didn't hold back in praising the Democrat vying to replace him. "When I fought in Vietnam, I wanted to be with people who had the same values I had, whom I could trust," Gilchrest said, according to one attendee, as guests looked up from their mini-crabcakes. "If I was again in the trenches in Vietnam, Frank is who I'd want next to me." By the end of Gilchrest's speech, Kratovil's eyes were welling with grateful tears.
Republicans in this part of Maryland are not supposed to make Democrats weep tears of joy. Culturally more Bible Belt than Beltway, the gun-loving first district--a red ghetto on the Eastern Shore tucked between the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware--favored George W. Bush by 26 points in 2004. "Obama will get crushed here," Kratovil told me with a matter-of-fact shrug.
Even though Kratovil is a law-and-order moderate--he already hangs out with the conservative Democratic faction in the House, the Blue Dogs--eastern Maryland is conservative enough that, normally, he should be getting crushed, too. Only there's another problem here for the GOP. While Democrats have bent over backwards to recruit red-district candidates who will go over well with the camo-and-pickup-truck set, Republicans are becoming more purist--so much so that, here in eastern Maryland, they've driven their own incumbent congressman to the Democratic dark side. Just when you thought Republicans nationwide had hit electoral rock bottom, they seem determined to make things worse. Among other mistakes, they might just have foisted too red a candidate on this reddest of regions.
The trouble in Maryland's crimson paradise began in February, when unhappy GOPers deposed Gilchrest, their party's incumbent, in the primary. Jacobin conservatives had always been irritated by the pro-gay-rights, pro-environment maverick, but Gilchrest's treasons--he was one of two Republicans in the House to vote for Nancy Pelosi's war funding bill--pricked even more after the GOP loss in 2006. This time around, conservatives found the perfect Gilchrest foil in state senator Andy Harris, a happy ideologue known for casting lone anti-spending votes on bipartisan bills and bragging that the only newspaper his family read growing up was Human Events.
The Club for Growth dumped nearly $250,000 into Harris's primary effort, while James Dobson, the Eagle Forum, and The Washington Times proffered endorsements. Harris appeared on television deriding Gilchrest as "too liberal ... a big tax-and-spender"--and won the bitter five-way primary. Gleeful Republicans all but preordered his congressional lapel pin. "The numbers speak for themselves," one National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman told The Baltimore Sun. "This is a Republican stronghold that will perform well."
But, by March 11, the stronghold was under siege. That was the morning Gilchrest's chief of staff and office manager, as well as one of his fund-raisers, showed up to a "Republicans for Kratovil" breakfast, sending titters through the local press. Things grew worse in the late summer, when Gilchrest himself began to stump for the Democrat--effusively. "Not only are we aligned on the issues, it's almost like [Kratovil] is my son," he rhapsodized to me recently. "He loves the land. He loves the Eastern Shore ... its vast open spaces, its fishing villages, the call of the geese in the fall, the sound of cows mooing, the sound of eagles chirping in the spring after the eaglets hatch. "
Harris's campaign manager dismissed Team Gilchrest's snub as bitterness. "I'd call it bipolar support, not bipartisan," he sniffed. But it turned out Gilchrest wasn't the only moderate, esoteric Republican in the first district. Gilchrest's fund-raiser, Lynn Caligiuri, recalls a garden party she threw for Kratovil in late September, which a number of her Republican friends attended. At the party, Kratovil regaled the crowd with stories of Harris's lone "no" votes. "I can't tell you how many Republicans came up to me and said, 'I had no idea how conservative he was,'" says Caligiuri. She pauses and giggles at the memory. "One of them was my Dad."
What about eastern Maryland's right-wingers? Well, wingnuts are not all alike, and even the district's conservatives--many of whom combine pro-gun, anti-tax sentiments with tender concern for protecting the Chesapeake Bay--found reason to worry. Frank Frohn, a self-described "very conservative" "hunter and shooter" from Stevensville, had never donated to a Democrat before Kratovil. But, he complained, "if you look at Andy Harris's environmental record, his vote is always no. How can you move the country forward by continually saying no? We could send a bobble-head doll to Congress to say no."
Kratovil out-raised Harris in the third quarter, and his campaign's latest internal poll puts him--amazingly--just ahead. But Harris is unrepentant. An anti-Kratovil ad he recently put on the air features lines similar to those from his anti-Gilchrest primary spot--"too liberal ... a big spender"--and some of the same man-on-the-street people speaking them.
Wayne Gilchrest's revenge lends special drama to the Kratovil-Harris battle. But the House race map is awash in Kratovils and Harrises. No district is too red for Democrats to play in--not Maryland's first district; not Texas's seventh, whose incumbent Republican favors creating state militias to confront illegal immigrants; not GOP districts in Alabama, California, Ohio, and Wyoming that Bush won with more than 60 percent of the vote in '04 and that now all boast legitimate Democratic challengers; not districts in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas that went for Bush by 20 points or more and were won in '06 by conservative Democrats. The GOP has often responded to these challenges by tacking even further to the right. Purist candidates who rail against abortion in districts like Indiana's eighth and North Carolina's eleventh seem likely to help Democrats consolidate their '06 wins. Amazingly, Democrats now occupy over 60 districts that voted for Bush in '04, often by fronting candidates who barely have a thing in common with Nancy Pelosi. By contrast, as more and more of its moderates retire or get ousted, the GOP is clinging to just eight districts that voted for John Kerry. Democrats have even or better odds of winning half of them in November.
The Democrats' adaptability spells victory--for now. But Pelosi's big, fat, motley family could get dysfunctional in the 111th Congress.
Two days after the Kratovil fund-raiser with Gilchrest, Kratovil joined Donna Edwards--a liberal African American representative from the adjoining district--for a service in a Salisbury, Maryland black church. Over brunch in the church's social hall, the two young Democrats communed about the government's failure to monitor Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "See, you and me, we're in line," Kratovil gushed, over a forkful of baked chicken.
But, when Kratovil wandered off to try and shoot some hoops with the pastor, the mood darkened. Do you worry, I asked Edwards, that as the Democratic Party tries to gain the whole country it could forfeit its soul? She does, she admitted. She recalled the day in September when she found herself on the House floor, arguing against a bill that would force the District of Columbia to loosen its gun laws--written by Travis Childers, a freshman Blue Dog from Mississippi. "I was like, my opponent is a Democrat?" Edwards said.
The Childers bill passed the House (though it has stalled in the Senate). But Blue Dog Democrats may face more vigorous left-wing opposition in 2009. The House leadership favored conservatives in the 110th, and progressives often capitulated for the good of the party. But, explains Edwards, that forgiving spirit won't last forever. If Kratovil wins in November--a Democratic miracle--it could soon be tears of frustration he's weeping. "We're done laying down everything for the Blue Dogs," Edwards warned. "I talk to progressives and we say, 'We're done giving in.'"
Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.