Delco Democrats make historic gains, but not in Media

In the history of the region's politics, it was an epic event.

After a century of lagging behind Delaware County's powerful Republicans, Democrats for the first time in August 2013 gained a voter-registration advantage over the GOP.

At the time, the margins were razor-thin: Only 19 voters separated the parties, but Democratic leaders still greeted the change as a sign of a shifting political landscape. Today, that number has swelled to almost 6,400.

What Democrats haven't gained, however, is any county office: No Democrat in recent memory has been elected to a judgeship. And since Gerald Ford's presidency, none has served on the county governing body.

On Tuesday, they took yet another thumping.

Democratic Party leaders say it takes more than two years to parlay a registration advantage into local successes. Republicans, however, say they simply put up better candidates.

County Democrats have shown muscle in state and national elections. In 2014, Gov. Wolf captured Delaware County with more than 60 percent of the vote. Democrats now hold more of the county's state House seats than the GOP. And slowly, Democrats have picked up wins in municipal races.

But the county offices have remained elusive.

On Tuesday, Republicans maintained their grip, winning all seven possible county seats in an election that Delaware County GOP Chairman Andy Reilly called a "clean sweep."

In an election that drew fewer than 30 percent of registered voters, county council Republican incumbents Colleen P. Morrone, John P. McBlain, and Michael Culp won reelection by a margin of at least 7,000 votes. In the court races, Republicans Dominic F. Pileggi, Anthony Scanlon, and Margaret Amoroso defeated their challengers by even bigger margins. And Republican District Attorney Jack Whelan ran unopposed.

Deep roots

The wins mine a deep history embedded in the county's political culture, one that began nearly a century ago with John J. McClure, the Republican Party's undisputed political boss who unofficially ran the county for more than 50 years. Even with McClure's death in 1965, and the abolition of his political machine - the "War Board" - 1975, some hold that Republican-dominated influence still lingers.

Around that time, in 1968, registered Republican outnumbered Democrats by a nearly 4-1 ratio - a marked difference from today. Even as Democrats have seen registration gains, GOP numbers are slipping: The party has lost nearly 5,000 registered voters in two years.

Delaware County Democratic Party Chair David Landau said exploiting the new numbers advantage is a long-term game.

"It's unrealistic to expect that, if you have a majority registration, you're instantly going to win at the county level," Landau said. "You have to build infrastructure. You do that town by town."

In Montgomery County, Democrats gained a voter-registration advantage in April 2008. In November 2011, Democrats took majority of the county's commissioner seats for the first time - albeit with a registration advantage nearly five times greater than what Delaware County Democrats have currently.

Reilly, the GOP chairman, says no matter the numbers, it comes down to running the better candidates. He contends the GOP has them.

"We run candidates who are well-liked and who resonate with the voters," Reilly said. "People like the county government. They think it's responsive and lean and mean."

Buoyed by stronger name recognition, better party organization, and deeper pockets, Republicans in Delaware County were able to overtake Democrats this cycle with a more concrete execution plan, said Randall M. Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University.

In some ways, they did it with big, almost insurmountable, assets: County Democrats raised about a quarter as much as the GOP committee this year, according to campaign-finance filings.

But beyond what Landau called "unlimited funds" for the GOP in some parts of the county, smaller setbacks also hurt.

In March, the three Democratic candidates for county council were booted off the primary ballot after a judge ruled the candidates improperly filed statements of financial interest. Only through a passionate write-in campaign were they able to secure ballot spots for November.

Again in October, the Democrats came under criticism after abruptly backing out of a scheduled debate between all county council candidates, organized by Delaware County's League of Women Voters. In canceling, Landau cited a lack of publicity and outstanding organizational issues. Reilly quipped that they just had "cold feet." A smaller debate later took place.

"Those kinds of things should never have happened," Miller said.

Still, he said, the county Democrats are light-years from where they once were.

"If you look at it now from just 12 years ago, the Democrats have done a lot of good work in party strength," he said. "They were a shadow party, not even a legitimate party. They're legitimate now."

'Encouraged'

He attributes that to confidence that comes with winning seats.

"If local Democrats see they have a greater prospect that they might win, better candidates will be encouraged to run," he said.

But local Democrats acknowledge they still face one vast obstacle - getting voters to the polls.

While off-year elections historically produce low turnout across the board, Democrats especially face disadvantages. The county's voters are typically older and whiter, demographics that favor the GOP.

And while Democrats can curry favor with voters in national and state races, Miller said, they struggle to incite passion in municipal elections. Even harder, he said, are county off-year races - an area of politics that Miller said does not affect voters in a hyper-local or a national, policy-shaping way.

"Most people have no idea what their local governments do," he said. "And when there's low voter turnout, it works for the established party."

Landau disagrees. He pointed to gains this election in Chester Heights, Brookhaven, Haverford Township, and elsewhere as a sign that the party is growing stronger.

Still, he said, it is confronting the lingering effects of Republican domination and patronage.

Reilly rebuffs that.

"It wasn't the machine that caused the candidates to back out of the debate," Reilly said. "It's an old Democratic throw line they just throw in there to justify Republican gains."

"If machine means well-organized and hardworking, then, sure, we are machinelike."

cmccabe@philly.com

610-313-8113

@mccabe_caitlin