In city judicial elections, GOP bows to Dems: 6 Republicans exit, giving ballot slots to opponents

It isn't easy being a Republican in Philadelphia, and party leaders sometimes pick their battles with the far stronger and more numerous Democrats.

But at least one GOP ward leaders is ticked off that the party has turned tail and run in city judicial elections this fall, withdrawing Republican candidates and giving Democrats an uncontested ride.

"We're rolling over and playing dead," said Matthew Wolfe, Republican leader of the 27th Ward, in University City. "If we're going to rebuild the Republican Party, we're going to have to contest things. We have to give voters alternatives."

Here's what happened:

Pennsylvania rules allow judicial candidates to run in primaries for both parties, and this year several Philadelphia candidates won both, putting them on both the Democratic and Republican ballots this fall.

But some on each side won only one primary, setting up a contested election on Nov. 3.

But, at an Aug. 25 party meeting, Republican leaders announced the withdrawal of the six judicial candidates on their ballot who had failed to also win the Democratic primary. And, they said, the GOP had decided to replace them on the Republican ballot with Democratic candidates who hadn't won the Republican primary.

In other words, the Democratic team is now on both ballots and assured of victory.

What gives?

"The individual candidates made that decision," said Vito Canuso, GOP city chairman. He said that Republican candidates considered the cost of a campaign and the virtual certainty of defeat, and decided it wasn't worth it.

Republican Common Pleas candidate Ann Marie Coyle remembers it a little differently. She admits that she made the decision, but not without some help.

"The party leaders asked me to step aside, and I reluctantly granted that request," Coyle said. Coyle declined to say which party leaders had spoken with her.

The political grapevine is at times heavy with tales of Republican Party leader Michael Meehan's reaching agreements with the city Democratic chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady. Both said that that didn't happen here.

"They didn't do it for me," Brady said in a phone interview. "Michael did call me to tell me he's doing it . . . he's done this before."

Meehan said that Republican candidates understand the long odds they face.

"It's not like we're not trying to compete," Meehan said. "But some of these candidates don't want to spend six months campaigning with very little chance of winning.

But why, even if Republican candidates withdraw, would party leaders replace them on the GOP slate with Democrats?

It's a tough town, Meehan said, and sometimes you have to think long-term.

"We all cross paths somewhere along the line, whether in election court, or on Election Day," Meehan said. "If I didn't have some Democratic friends - look, there's not enough Republicans in this town."

GOP ward leader Wolfe denounced the move in his e-mailed newsletter. "The Republican Party in Philadelphia needs to fight the Democrats in order to become stronger," Wolfe wrote. "We need to contest elections."