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Former Army Ranger approaches congressional campaign like a military mission

Mary and Howard McCoy speak with Democrat Jesse Colvin at their family farm in Centreville, Maryland.

ARELIS R. HERNÁNDEZ/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By ARELIS R. HERNÁNDEZ | The Washington Post | Published: October 11, 2018

Jesse Colvin is approaching his quest to unseat Rep. Andy Harris, R, in Maryland's solidly red 1st Congressional District the way one might expect a former military intelligence officer would chase an elusive target.

He has clocked more than 600 miles a week on his truck on reconnaissance missions, getting to the know as many farms, factories and folks as he can in the sprawling district. He has studied the defeats of Democrats - and one moderate Republican - before him. And he has impressed Maryland power brokers with prolific fundraising and a growing volunteer network.

But it could be an ill-fated mission for the 34-year-old former U.S. Army Ranger and first-time candidate.

The heavily gerrymandered district - which includes pieces of Baltimore, Harford and Carroll counties and the Eastern Shore - leans strongly Republican, with 64 percent voting for President Donald Trump in 2016, and 67 percent voting for Harris. Even if a national Democratic wave materializes in the midterm elections, it's difficult to imagine that trend sweeping Harris out of office.

"Numbers-wise it's next to impossible," said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan prognosticator. "Democrats shot themselves in the foot here back in 2011. They packed this district with Republicans in redistricting so as to make surrounding districts safer."

Libertarian Jenica Martin of Cecil County is also seeking the seat, but has not raised significant money and is holding far fewer campaign events.

Colvin has outraised Harris in a couple of quarters this election cycle, drawing donations from PACs devoted to military veterans, unions, former Democratic Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's Win Back Your State PAC and some former Bush administration officials. But the Republican is sitting comfortably, with more than seven times as much cash in the bank as Colvin, and a four-term voting record that he is confident aligns with the values of his conservative constituents.

"Democrats made it a pretty steep hill to climb for a challenger," Harris said in an interview.

Colvin says Congress needs leaders who put "country over party." He is hoping to outwork Harris by knocking on more doors, connecting with more people and tapping into what he describes as frustration and anger with ideologically driven "career politicians screaming at each other on cable news."

"In Afghanistan, I had to know all the details of the tribal alliances, the leaders and the reality on the ground to give my commander the right information for troop movements," Colvin said. "I learned showing up counts, and listening counts even more. Voters are looking for someone genuine."

A staunch Trump defender

Democrats last won this seat in Congress in 2008. Harris, an anesthesiologist and state lawmaker from Baltimore County, had defeated centrist incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in a contentious GOP primary.

The schism gave Democrat Frank Kratovil the edge he needed to beat Harris in the general election. But Harris roared back in 2010, riding a wave of tea-party rage that delivered Congress into Republican hands. He has held onto the seat ever since.

The son of immigrants who fled communism in Eastern Europe to raise five children in New York, Harris devoutly espouses limited government and tax cuts. He has staunchly defended President Trump's travel ban and efforts to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, even as he pushed for additional guest-worker visas to help Maryland's crab industry.

Harris has helped funnel federal dollars into fighting opioid addiction in parts of his district. But he also voted down a bill that would have delivered aid to Eastern Shore residents devastated by Hurricane Sandy, saying it was full of unrelated spending earmarks.

His campaign website includes glowing testimonials from constituents he has helped, including a military family and several small business owners. The campaign says its volunteers have knocked on 200,000 doors.

"The voters of the Eastern Shore will look at my voting record and realize it's a record that supports growing the economy and tax cuts for hard-working Marylanders," Harris said. "I've delivered."

Harris voted dozens of times to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, despite the large number of his constituents who benefited from insurance exchanges.

"The Affordable Care Act did not deliver affordable insurance," Harris said, adding that he believes a Republican replacement bill, which failed, would have done just that.

He praised action by Gov. Larry Hogan, R, and the Democratic-majority legislature to levy a surcharge on insurance companies to create a "reinsurance fund" that will help lower insurance premiums for Marylanders buying insurance from the ACA exchanges.

Harris's hard-line stances have thrilled his supporters and earned him notoriety beyond his district. He has likened the proliferation of medical pot to telling patients to chew on mold instead of taking penicillin. In a radio interview last month, he called Christine Blasey Ford, the psychologist who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, a "troubled woman."

He is a strong opponent of marijuana legalization and D.C. statehood. Last week, two pro-marijuana demonstrators - one from the nation's capital, one from the Eastern Shore - were arrested for smoking a joint outside his Capitol Hill office.

Harris's critics say his meddling in D.C. affairs and his partisanship have turned off some constituents. "He doesn't come across as very personable," said Adam Hoffman, the chair of Salisbury University's political-science department.

Winning bipartisan support

Colvin's goal is to offer voters a soft-spoken, mostly centrist alternative.

He talks about returning civility to public discourse, economic support for the working poor, protecting Medicare and the ACA, and boosting oyster populations to help protect the Chesapeake Bay.

It's an approach that Gilchrest - who broke with his party for a second time in the past decade to endorse Colvin - believes could resonate.

The 1st District has always been conservative, "but it's more of a pragmatic conservatism than an ideological one," Gilchrest said. "If you raise poultry or pick crabs or shuck oysters . . . you have a different view of immigration than an ideological conservative because you need people to do that work."

Colvin, who grew up in Baltimore County, said he wanted to enter the military after high school because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but his parents persuaded him to attend college first. He studied Arabic , later moving to Syria to teach English to Iraqi refugees.

Unsatisfied with how the war was going, Colvin joined the U.S. Army, deploying four times to Afghanistan. When he left military service, he obtained a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and worked as a fraud investigator at an investment bank.

"At some point last year, I turned to my wife and said, 'The politics of division in Congress and hyper-partisanship are pulling our country apart," Colvin told supporters at a recent fundraiser. And so he decided to run.

He has organized more than 90 meet-and-greets and raised nearly $700,000. This month, he launched a 12-day jaunt through the district in a giant RV.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee considers Colvin's race one to watch, said spokeswoman Amanda Sherman. The state party set up a phone bank and offered people to knock on doors and work social media.

Harris has criticized Colvin's campaign for missing the deadline for candidates to file financial-disclosure forms to the House Ethics Committee. Colvin spokesman Sam Schneider said it was an unintentional oversight that has been fixed.

Colvin is staying out of the Maryland governor's race, endorsing neither Democrat Ben Jealous nor Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

His 1,250-person volunteer force includes Republicans such as Dave Conrad, 61, a steel-industry salesman who is disillusioned by partisan vitriol and working on a campaign for the first time.

Colvin also won over Elkton, Maryland, Mayor Robert Alt, a Republican who sees Trump as pragmatic but wishes he would "put the Twitter away." He thinks Harris is an ideologue.

"I'm truly tired of the partisanship we see in D.C.," Alt said. "I think we need to vote on issues instead of arguing about it. We need Washington to remember there are three branches of government."

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., meets with Marines during a congressional delegation visit at Morón Air Base, Spain, May 4, 2018.
BRITNI M GARCIA GREEN/U.S. MARINE CORPS

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