Montco Republicans gear up for 2015 election

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Tim Ward (right), of Montgomery County, collects ballots during the Montgomery County GOP's endorsement convention at Colonial Middle School in Plymouth Meeting on Feb. 25, 2015. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )

With their candidates picked and their rank and file energized, Montgomery County Republicans are preparing to mount their biggest electoral battle since 2011.

The odds remain stacked against them.

"Voters should get their popcorn and beverage of choice ready because it's going to be a barn burner of a campaign," party chairman Mike Vereb pledged.

The party's convention last week was more upbeat than it has been in years, with little mention of the infighting, scandals, and electoral losses that have plagued county Republicans. But they acknowledged the road ahead remains rocky.

The Democrats' voter-registration lead has grown to 8.4 percentage points, and their party leader already has $1.5 million in the bank. Before the Republicans can take on Josh Shapiro for control of the county Board of Commissioners, they will have to fend off a primary challenge at the top of the ticket.

The Republican committee overwhelmingly endorsed two municipal officials - Steve Tolbert, 37, of West Norriton, and Scott Zelov, 57, of Lower Merion - for county commissioner. But Joseph Gale, a 25-year-old from Lansdale who has never held office, managed to siphon off 25 percent of the vote.

Gale acknowledged he will be an underdog but said, "The people deserve a new generation of leaders who will restore respect to public service."

And he had some impassioned supporters: people disillusioned with a party that has turned away from hot-button social issues and scrambled for new leadership in late 2013 after its chairman, Robert Kerns, was charged with sexual assault.

Gale "is what we need in this party. He is a true fiscal conservative, and, from my perspective, is a solid pro-life candidate," said committeewoman Mary McMonagle.

"We can no longer afford to muzzle and squash our best and brightest by telling them to sit on the bench and wait their turn," said Whitemarsh Supervisor James Totten.

Tolbert, an economics professor and Army reservist, said he was up to the challenge: "I'm a combat vet. There's very little you can say to me that's going to cause me concern."

The party has rallied around Tolbert and Zelov, who share a background in economics, fiscal conservatism, and a "big tent" brand of Republican politics.

"We need a slate of Republicans who will attract Democrats and independents to vote for our party," said Jon D. Fox, a former legislator.

Political pollster Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College said highlighting fiscal issues probably wouldn't be enough to overcome Shapiro, who can tout that he "inherited a deficit, balanced the budget, expanded programs - a high-profile commissioner who is here, there, and everywhere, no scandal, in a county that's been trending more Democratic," Madonna said. "Beating Shapiro would be a Herculean task."

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, agreed. "Herculean is not a bad way to put it," he said.

Absent a scandal or a wider climate of anti-Democratic sentiment, Borick said, the Republicans would need transcendent candidates.

"They'd have to be outliers, so good that they energize the public in a way that we don't see very often," he said.

Some GOP insiders said the height of the hurdle was turning off some usually deep-pocketed donors.

"I think there's unity among committee people and the rank and file, but I don't know if the money people are committed to winning this," said a high-ranking committeeman who did not want to be named. "People know Josh has got $1.5 million in his bank account, and he works his tail off. The attitude was, 'He's going to be tough to beat, so why bother?' "

Shapiro's running mate, Val Arkoosh, could also prove hard to beat. She was the top fund-raiser in a heated 2014 congressional primary and held her own against three career politicians.

Thomas Jay Ellis, a former county commissioner, said the party had to be aggressive in going after Shapiro's administration.

"Let's show people that they have shortcomings," he said, "and remind them that Republicans have given Montgomery County 150 years of good, cost-effective, honest government."

"This is not out of reach. This is not something we cannot accomplish," Vereb said. "We'll get our candidates across the finish line in May and rejuvenate for a flat-out muscle match in November."

 


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