Michael Smerconish: The GOP vs. the GOP

Al Schmidt (left), state Republican Party’ s senior adviser for Philadelphia, and Rob Gleason, state GOP chairman, at a news conference on Feb. 9. (David Maialetti / Staff)

THE GOP city committee finally won an election on Tuesday.

But the losers weren't the Democrats. It was the Republican State Committee and its chairman, Robert Gleason.

The intraparty infighting that culminated in the showdown has been building for some time, but it's playing out on the wrong battlefield.

On Tuesday night, Republican ward leaders voted to change how the city committee elects its leaders. Wards with more registered Republicans are now given greater weight in the election process. The vote was a defensive maneuver by Michael Meehan, the de facto head of the city GOP. Meehan has felt some heat recently from the state committee, which for years has complained that depressed Republican turnout in Philadelphia has hurt its statewide candidates.

No one can deny that the city committee can do better. Or that the city would benefit from competitive general elections. Gleason has a point when he says the GOP doesn't "hold the Democratic Party accountable. And that allows their elected officials to do whatever they want." You have to go back to 1989, when Ron Castille was re-elected as district attorney for the last time a Republican candidate won citywide.

Still, you wonder how much of the GOP trouble in the city is fixable by the city committee. It's a bit more complicated than just finding committee people to register voters, introduce candidates and hand out leaflets on Election Day.

Approximately 45 percent of the city population is African-American. The city Democratic Party maintains a registration edge of more than 6-to-1. What prospect does the GOP have of cutting into that base?

Probably none, even though the Democrats take that vote for granted. The monolithic support that blacks have shown for Democrats is way beyond Meehan's control, especially when coupled with the lack of outreach by the Republican National Committee to minorities.

And apart from those demographic and registration realities, the combination of long-standing labor roots and deeply entrenched machine politics leave much of the rest of the population out of reach, too. Especially in the short term.

Perhaps a better use of state GOP resources would be the exodus to the suburbs. Think Lower Merion and Southampton, not Logan Square and Spring Garden. The real battleground is the former GOP strongholds of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. In November 2004, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats there by 242,725. Today, the Dems have an advantage of 10,201.

And despite President Obama's drop in popularity and recent GOP victories in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the trend hasn't reversed over the last 15 months. Since November 2008, the number of registered Democrats in the four suburban counties has dropped by 6,748 (0.9 percent), while Republicans have lost 25,441 voters (3.3 percent). It's also worth noting that the number of unaffiliated voters in those counties has almost doubled from 38,426 in April 2008 to 73,541 today.

Those 73,500 voters - along with the hundreds of thousands of Republican expatriates living in the inner suburbs around Philadelphia - are the ones the state GOP should be fighting to reach. That's where future statewide GOP candidates have the most to gain - or regain - in 2010 and beyond.

Back in January 2008, I ran a similar theory past Karl Rove.

Here's what he told me: "To win Pennsylvania as a Republican presidential candidate, you've got to do three things. You've got to drive up the Republican turnout in the T. You've got to eat into the Democrat numbers in Allegheny County and Southwest Pa. And you need to maximize your vote in the collar suburbs, the inner suburbs there around Philadelphia."


OF COURSE, that advice was easier preached than practiced for George W. Bush and his electoral architect.

But notice what Rove didn't say: "We are not going to win for president or win any statewide office unless we do better in Philadelphia."

Those words belong to Gleason. But he and the rest of the state GOP would be wise to focus on making Rove's strategy work better than it has. The "T" will always be there for Republicans. Too much of Philly is out of play. It's the 'burbs, stupid.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.smerconish.com.