Another pitched GOP primary forming on the Eastern Shore

With freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil’s (D-Md.) conservative Eastern Shore district near the top of the Republican target list next year, Maryland state Sen. Andy Harris aims to avenge what turned out to be one of the most disappointing losses of 2008 for the GOP.

But he might not be alone.

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Sources say state Sen. E.J. Pipkin is also leaning toward entering the primary for a second-straight cycle, and former state House Minority Leader Al Redmer told The Hill on Monday that he too could run against Harris.

Pipkin, a wealthy former Senate nominee, entered the Republican primary at the last minute in last year’s race. He spent $1 million of his own money and took 20 percent of the vote while Harris defeated incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) 43-33 in a nasty duel.

One 1st district operative estimated Pipkin is 70-80 percent likely to run for Congress, while others acknowledged he’s giving it a close look.

Whether Pipkin or someone else gets in the race, one of the leading arguments against Harris will be electability. After all, Harris lost in a district that went for Republican presidential nominee John McCain 58-40.

Harris’s supporters emphasize that 2008 was an anomaly, with a bad political environment and an outgoing GOP incumbent — Gilchrest — who swung the race by endorsing Kratovil.

“We’ve got a governor [Martin O’Malley] who is very unpopular in the district instead of Barack Obama at the top of the ticket,” Harris said. “The primary’s not an early primary and it’s not against an incumbent, so the race will be a different kind of race.”

Pipkin hasn’t proved the most electable candidate, either, taking 34 percent in a thankless race against Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in 2004, in addition to his third-place showing last year.

But he does have plenty of resources and the ability to, at the very least, make a primary expensive for Harris. Besides the money he spent running for Congress last year, Pipkin spent $2 million running against Mikulski.

There’s also the geography. The district straddles the Chesapeake Bay. Pipkin, like Gilchrest, is from the historically dominant Eastern Shore, while Harris is from Baltimore County on the Western Shore.

Gilchrest said Pipkin stole Eastern Shore votes from him last year, and that a head-to-head Harris vs. Pipkin matchup could go either way.

“The question is, could E.J. win enough votes on the Eastern Shore to compensate for what he’s losing on the Western Shore?” Gilchrest said.

Gilchrest, who is on much better terms with Pipkin than with Harris, said he would likely endorse in the race again. Many Harris supporters blame his cross-party endorsement of Kratovil for Harris’s one-percentage-point loss.

Gilchrest talks regularly with Kratovil and had high praise for him, but he also suggested that a Republican with similar characteristics could earn his support.

“If a Republican came to me with the same objective voice, the same informed opinions, the same diligence and hope of being competent, I would sit down and listen,” Gilchrest said. He said Pipkin has sought a meeting between the two of them.

Gilchrest said Harris and Pipkin are the most formidable of the candidates being discussed, but they’re not the only ones.

Redmer heads a list of other potential candidates that includes Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold, former Gilchrest primary challenger Rich Colburn and state Del. Mike Smigiel.

Redmer, who had previously eyed Harris’s state Senate seat in 2010, said he is now looking at Congress after hearing from Eastern Shore activists. Redmer is from the Western Shore but has a business on the Eastern Shore.

He also said that he has talked with Pipkin in recent weeks.

“I have had general conversations,” Redmer said. “I think it’s fair to say E.J. is looking at it very closely.”

The operative who said it looked like Pipkin would run noted that Pipkin is tired of being a state senator. There has been some talk that Pipkin might run for governor, senator or state comptroller.

Pipkin did not respond to interview requests.

Local Republicans are concerned that the situation could lead to another tough primary, and unlike in 2008, there could be only two months to recover before the general election. While the state held February primaries to coincide with the presidential race last cycle, they are set for September in 2010 (though there is an effort to move that date to June).

For all the talk about a potential primary, though, influential state and national Republicans have been happy to stick with Harris.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was in the state over the weekend raising money for Harris — $40,000, according to the candidate — and Harris has sent out a mailer touting the continued support of former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R).

National Republicans are of the opinion that, without a popular Democrat at the top of the ticket and with Kratovil having to take votes in Congress, a rematch would yield better results.

“This much is clear — Frank Kratovil is certain to face a top-tier Republican challenger in 2010,” said a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Andy Sere.

Kratovil spokesman Kevin Lawlor said the congressman “isn’t concerning himself with Republican primaries” and is working hard to be the best representative he can.