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« Take That, RNC | Blog Home Page | Two Big Recruits For GOP »

Gichrest Faces Primary Fight

The scenic Eastern shore of Maryland has faced some of the biggest environmental challenges in the country, as centuries of pollution has flowed through the Chesapeake Bay. It is little wonder, then, that the congressman representing the district is one of the biggest environmentalists in Congress. It is somewhat more surprising that the congressman, Wayne Gilchrest, is a Republican.

First elected in 1990, Gilchrest represents a heavily Republican district that voted solidly for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. But Gilchrest is no traditional Republican; along with his environmental streak (he co-chairs the Congressional Climate Change Caucus), he is pro-choice and has backed campaign finance reform efforts. A member of the Republican Main Street Partnership and other moderate groups, Gilchrest has made a habit of trying to drag his party back to the middle.

That moderate record hasn't sat well with some in Gilchrest's district, and this year two strong candidates are trying to give the incumbent the boot. State Senators Andy Harris and E.J. Pipkin are both running, and, with the involvement of the Club for Growth on Harris' behalf and Pipkin's personal fortune, both will give Gilchrest a run for his money.

Pipkin, who joined the race this week, jumps into what has already become a nasty race. Both candidates have run negative ads already, with Gilchrest dumping about $200,000 into ads in the last half of November alone. Outside groups are playing a big role in the race as well: The Club has run ads backing Harris, while the League of Conservation Voters ran ads backing Gilchrest.

It is likely Pipkin, who was last heard from challenging Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2004, will contribute heavily to his own race. He donated more than $1.6 million to his own campaign in that race, and because this year's primary takes place February 12, it is likely he will need to dip into his own bank account again for this year's race.

FEC filings show Gilchrest should already be worried about his financial condition. At the end of the third quarter, Gilchrest had raised $174,000 and had about $414,000 cash on hand. Harris had raked in an impressive $531,000 and retained around $400,000 in the bank.

Institutional Republican support has mostly flowed to Harris this year. The NRCC doesn't get involved in primaries, but chairman Tom Cole barely defended his incumbent in a meeting with reporters last month. Many local elected officials are backing Harris, including former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who held an October fundraiser for the challenger.

Gilchrest has survived other well-funded primary challenges. But Harris' impressive fundraising and Pipkin's entry are probably keeping Gilchrest's campaign team up at night. On the other hand, the district's voters know Gilchrest, and with both Pipkin and Harris in the race, Harris backers worry the anti-Gilchrest vote will be split. Getting another challenger could be the best thing that happens to Gilchrest all year.