In a condo along the Kent Narrows overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Heather Mizeur preached common ground.

Speaking to a room packed mostly with supporters, the Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 1st Congressional District pitched her campaign as an exercise in radical bipartisanship — an approach she described as both essential and rare in today’s toxic politics.

“When I go to talk to Republicans, I help them understand the Democrats, and when I go and talk to the Democrats, I help them understand the Republicans,” she said. “It’s like I’m walking in two worlds, and really stitching us back together.”

Mizeur’s appeals to bipartisan goodwill drew applause from the intimate gathering, some of whom opened their checkbooks at the end of the evening in support of the Democrat’s challenge to six-term incumbent Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican. But all that bonhomie might sound at odds with her broader audience, which seemed content with today’s partisan divide when it broke for former President Donald Trump by a double-digit margin two years ago.

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Mizeur has labeled Harris an extremist and a “traitor,” and spotlighted his ties to the former president. The former Johns Hopkins physician has remained loyal to Trump and, in recent months, has come under scrutiny over allegations that he attended a private White House meeting to discuss ways of undermining the 2020 election results ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

In an interview, Harris pivoted from the events of President Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day, arguing that Mizeur resorts to discussing Jan. 6 because she can’t acknowledge her positions on the economy, policing, border policies or schools.

“January 6 is behind us,” Harris said. “My opponent wakes up every morning, and it’s January 6 all over again. Most people wake up every morning” and think about the price of a gallon of gas, he added.

Harris, who previously pledged not to exceed six terms in Congress, said he was moved to seek a seventh term to address an urgent moment in U.S. politics, driven by high inflation, left-wing policies and the opioid epidemic.

Libertarian Party candidate Daniel Thibeault will also appear on the ballot in the 1st district.

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“Here, we’re talking about democracy”

Maryland’s lone Republican in Washington, Harris is one of the state’s few prominent standard-bearers for Trump-aligned conservatism. He’s hewed closely to the former president in rhetoric and policy positions over recent years. And when members in the U.S. House of Representatives reconvened in the hours after rioters stormed the Capitol on Inauguration Day two years ago, Harris voted against certifying the presidential election results.

Democratic leadership in Washington has recently alleged that Harris was more deeply implicated in the events that precipitated the Jan. 6 insurrection. The House’s investigation into the pro-Trump riot found Harris was among at least 10 Congressional Republicans who attended a meeting at the White House in late December of 2020, reportedly to discuss how the vice president could reject election results on Inauguration Day.

It’s a revelation that is prominent in Mizeur’s messaging. She has called Harris “the most extreme member of Congress.” In the race’s lone debate earlier this week, the Democrat described the events of Jan. 6 as the call-to-action for her entry into the race. Harris’ visit to the Oval Office in late December was an act of betrayal, she said. “What were you doing in there that day?” she asked.

Harris defended the visit in the debate, saying he was honored to accept an invitation to the White House as “a son of immigrants.” Discussions there covered “serious topics,” not ways of undermining the election outcome, he said.

“Yeah, I went, and I would take the invitation again,” he said.

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Harris has also argued that the 2020 election underscored a need for election reform, arguing for tighter voter ID laws and “strict observer laws” to ensure public oversight of ballot counting. “Joe Biden got more counted votes than Donald Trump did. That’s the bottom line,” he said at the debate. “But in the process, Americans lost faith in the system.”

For Kent Narrows resident Barry Block, who attended Mizeur’s event earlier this month, Republican denialism over the 2020 election results is the most urgent issue on the ballot this year.

“Here, we’re talking about democracy,” he said. Block said he sees the GOP as the party of “we’ve got ours, up yours,” and “Dr. Andy” has done little to dispel that reputation. Though Block didn’t know a lot about Mizeur heading into the campaign event, he added he’s never had trouble deciding how to cast his vote when Harris is on the ballot.

“I go into the voting booth and I vote Democratic against Andy,” he said.

“Heather in the Hot Seat”

While Mizeur has outpaced Harris in fundraising, the 1st District has not attracted huge sums of money — she has raised $2.6 million compared to his $1.9 million, according to the latest filings — a possible indication that partisan donors see the seat as securely in GOP hands. To win, Mizeur will need her message of common ground to resonate with voters who are much more conservative than those who gathered in the Kent Narrows condo, a reality encapsulated in the campaign sign displayed behind her: “Another Republican for Mizeur.”

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She’s asking Eastern Shore voters to look past her party affiliation. “I’m not running against Andy Harris because he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat,” she told the room. “I’m running against him because he’s a traitor.”

A Catholic who lives on a 34-acre farm with her wife Deborah, Mizeur spoke in a warm, gentle tone, though she told her audience that “being nice doesn’t mean that I’m not fierce.” A feature of the former Maryland delegate’s campaign has been house gatherings with Republican voters — events she nicknames “Heather in the Hot Seat.”

Aubrey Vincent, owner of Lindy’s Seafood in Dorchester County, has been a longtime supporter of Harris, a choice she said has less to do with party politics and more to do with the economic drivers of the local fishing industry. Seasonal guest worker visas are crucial for filling the Eastern Shore’s labor force, including at Lindy’s Seafood, she said, and Harris has prioritized expansions of the program to keep the local fishing industry afloat.

“We run into issues every year where we don’t know if we’re gonna be staffed,” said Vincent, 35, who added that Harris has worked with her to champion additional H-2B visas and bring in temporary workers.

A self-described independent, Vincent said she’s often uncomfortable with Harris’ brand of ultraconservatism. But she added that she’s found the congressman open to conversation and disagreement, and she’s appreciated the accessibility of his office on her key issue.

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“Whether we agree on all the issues — because I can tell you that we don’t all the time,” Vincent said, “as far as communication, his office has been probably one of the best that we’ve worked with.”

A district “built for” Harris

Redistricting may have turned the 1st a slightly lighter shade of red, but the district, marked by farmland and the fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay, remains deeply conservative by Maryland standards. The new district, which stretches from Worcester County to wrap around the bay’s north end, has shifted from one President Donald Trump won in 2020 by more than 20 points to one he would have captured by about 15 points, according to a Politico analysis.

And Harris has dominated the district in recent election cycles, reclaiming the seat by 27 points two years ago, 22 points in 2018 and nearly 40 points when Trump won the presidency in 2016.

Republicans who find success in Maryland tend to be moderate, noted Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. “This is the exception.”

When lawmakers in Maryland’s Democrat-dominated General Assembly carved up the state with new political lines last year, they tried to create as many solidly blue districts as possible, Hartley said. The consequence of that approach was “one very deeply conservative district,” said Hartley: the 1st. The district was effectively “built for” Harris, the professor said.

At the event at Kent Narrows, Mizeur shared anecdotes about Trump supporters she’s connected with around the district. But she has also argued that her path to victory doesn’t hinge on winning over Trump’s base. Her winning coalition is a mix of moderate Republicans who support Gov. Larry Hogan, Democrats and independents, she said.

Hartley said Mizeur’s campaign has tried to show the district that Harris is too far right even for conservative voters, and to make the case that she will represent the interests of the 1st district, not the rest of blue Maryland. A big turnout on Election Day would likely sink her into at least a double-digit deficit, but her hopes might rest on the chance that Maryland Republicans don’t turn out in enthusiastic support for GOP governor nominee Dan Cox, a right-wing candidate who has denied the outcome of the 2020 election.

Even then, entrenched conservative country will be difficult to overcome for Mizeur.

Vincent at Lindy’s Seafood said her appreciation of Harris’ support for her industry is shared by many others in the area whose livelihoods depend on farming or fishing.

“That has a lot to do with why Andy Harris is so popular with the 1st district,” she said.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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