June 3, 2007 – Elkton, Maryland – Yellow ribbons and American flags cover store windows and car bumpers in this Eastern Shore town, which recently said goodbye to its largest deployment of National Guard members since World War II.
But as 131 Cecil County soldiers head to Iraq as a part of a national surge in troop levels, Elkton represents a divide in what could prove a national gauge of support for the war among Republicans.
That’s because the Eastern Shore faces a dilemma in the re-election campaign of Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a 16-year incumbent who was one of only two Republicans to vote earlier this year for a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.
The genial Gilchrest now faces a 2008 primary challenge from a hawkish state senator who says voters in this faithful Republican district are outraged by his Iraq vote. And if Gilchrest survives the primary, he faces another challenge from a Democrat.
There’s a feeling among some that Gilchrest, long considered one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress, could lose his career over his choice on Iraq.
“He’s too wishy-washy,” complained James Green of Elkton, a 62-year old veteran who attended the recent National Guard deployment ceremony. “I really don’t think he supports the troops like I support the troops.”
Others lauded his Iraq vote. Betty Rhoades, 63, came to the ceremony to see off her son-in-law. She praised Gilchrest for voting for withdrawal, even as she clutched a small American flag.
“I wish it was over,” she said of the war. “Bring ’em home. I think there ought to be a time limit. I don’t like to see the young babies go over there and die.”
Interviewed last week at an Annapolis coffee shop, Gilchrest was sanguine about his political future. He voted to authorize engagement in 2002, even rising to the House floor to compare the Iraq effort to World War II and saying of the troops, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Today, Gilchrest said, his opinion of the war is much different. He blames the continuing violence on bungling by the Bush administration, from not having enough military personnel to not adequately negotiating with Iraq’s neighbors.
“The bottom line is, we assumed the administration would be competent,” Gilchrest said, shaking his head. A Vietnam veteran, Gilchrest compares the Cold War to being stuck in a room with a cobra, while fighting terrorism is like being stuck in a room with a beehive.
“This is not our grandfather’s war,” he said. “This is not a World War I, a World War II. This is not even a fight like we had in the Cold War. … You don’t fight bees with a sledgehammer.”
Those criticisms — especially complaints about the president — have chafed so many Republicans in the district that some are plotting Gilchrest’s ouster. As Baltimore County Republican Sen. Andrew Harris flirted with a run, some sported “Run, Andy, Run” stickers at meetings.
Harris announced last month that he is planning to run. Once the second-ranking Republican in the Maryland Senate, Harris is considerably to the right of Gilchrest and says that Gilchrest’s anti-war stance will cost him his job.
“Wayne is a nice guy, but he has not participated in the Republican Party,” Harris said. On the war, Harris said, “I think the tipping point was reached on the Iraq war. … I think it sent a message that he is out of step with the Republican mainstream.”
Others were more pointed.
“It’s a slap in the face,” said Republican Sen. Richard Colburn of Dorchester County, who ran unsuccessfully against Gilchrest twice in Republican primaries, most recently in 2004. “Never in the history of warfare has an army been given a date to withdraw from their enemy. It’s just unbelievable. On the Eastern Shore, we support our troops.”
If Gilchrest survives the Feb. 12 Republican primary, he also has a Democrat to defeat. Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil planned to announce Monday he would seek the seat. Kratovil, a war opponent, said Democrats would like to see Gilchrest ousted, too.
“This most recent vote on Iraq has got a lot of people riled up. But he typically votes hand-in-hand with the Republicans,” Kratovil said. “Everyone says Wayne’s a nice guy, and I think that’s true, but it comes down to how effective you are. Getting fresh blood and new energy is a good thing for the district and a good thing for democracy.”
Gilchrest claims he doesn’t think about elections. He’s been challenged several times in Republican primaries. But he was unchallenged in 2006 on the GOP side and went on to beat a little-known Democrat with 68 percent of the vote.
“I simply don’t think about whether I’m vulnerable,” he said. “I’m a member of Congress; I do my job.”
Political scientist Harry Basehart of Salisbury University said Gilchrest is right not to lose sleep over his prospects.
“Wayne is still a very popular politician on the whole Eastern Shore,” Basehart said. “I just think there has to be some real reason for Republicans to vote against him … and I just don’t think Iraq is enough. I think it’s going to be very difficult to unseat him.”
Even some Republicans who disagree with Gilchrest’s withdrawal vote said they’re sticking with him. Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, said at the deployment ceremony that he didn’t like Gilchrest’s Iraq stance, but he’ll vote for him.
“You have to appreciate that he’s brave enough to say what he believes,” Smigiel said.
A few blocks away at the Main Street Cafe, manager Natalie Konopka got ready for the lunch crowd by hanging a newspaper page showing all the deploying soldiers next to a yellow handwritten “WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” poster. Konopka said she’s a patriot, but she backs Gilchrest.
“I don’t understand what the troops are over there for, so I agree with him,” Konopka said.
Gilchrest said that he suspects many Republicans share his war concerns. He said even some GOP House colleagues have confided that they agree with his Iraq position, though they felt unable to join him.
The question of Iraq, Gilchrest said, is too important to base on his political fortunes.
“I have a sense of urgency about stopping the slaughter. Stop the killing, stop the mayhem,” he said. “This is about more than Republicans. This about the new phase of human existence on the planet and how the United States fits into that. We have to raise our sights.”