Trump effect? Energized Dems show muscle in primary in Philly suburbs

The primary after a presidential election typically is something less than an afterthought, but what happened in polling places across the suburbs of Philadelphia last week might qualify well as historic.

As many Democrats showed up to vote in an off-year election in Delaware County as Republicans, who have dominated local government for more than a century. That was unprecedented, said David Landau, head of the county Democrats.

In Montgomery County, more than 50,000 Democrats showed up to cast ballots -- double the 2013 number.

After being devastated by the loss of the White House in November, party leaders in the politically pivotal Philadelphia suburbs say they are jubilant over what they see as the first tangible sign that months of Trump rage might be turning into electoral muscle.

Delaware County GOP chief Andrew Reilly acknowledged a Trump effect. "This happened because the frustration, the perception, that Donald Trump is not a legitimate president," Reilly said. "We expected it."

It’s not that Republicans stayed home; their numbers were comparable to other off-year elections, based on unofficial returns. It’s just that Democrats came out.

Ordinarily, the primary after a presidential election is a pro forma exercise involving low-profile or ignored races for judgeships, county and municipal offices and school-board seats.

Not this time in the Philadelphia region.

Statewide turnout was unexceptional, but in Philadelphia’s neighboring counties, energized Democratic voters elected school board members and fended off challenges from Republicans who also filed as Democrats. In Bucks County, a dozen Democrats defeated Republicans by winning both their own and the Republican primaries.

Democratic voters supported candidates who were new to the political system -- running for seats that, in prior years, would have been conceded to Republicans without so much as a Democrat in the primary.

Usually, it's the Republicans who come out while the Democrats stay home.

“It’s a new day,” said Delaware County's  Landau. He said the 26,600 Democrats who voted Tuesday marked the highest number ever to cast a ballot in a post-presidential-year primary there, far surpassing the previous high, 18,000.

“I think this is the first time in at least a decade that we’ve turned out more Democrats than Republicans on a municipal primary day -- and it wasn’t even close,” said Eric Nagy, executive director of Bucks County’s Democratic Party.

In Chester County, where Democratic presidential nominess Hillary Clinton outperformed Republican Trump in November by more than 25,000 votes despite a GOP registration advantage, 18 percent of Democrats came out to vote on Tuesday, compared with just 10 percent four years ago.

“These aren’t trends,” said Val DiGiorgio, the Chester County party chief who is the new state chair. “It’s one primary. Doesn’t make a trend.”

Democratic Party leaders said they already had begun to handicap the prospects of gains in next year’s midterm elections.

“County [party] leaders feel pretty strongly that if we have momentum built in 2017,” said Montgomery County Democratic Chairman Joseph Foster, “that will be extremely important for 2018.”

The collar counties, among the most populous in the state, are crucial to statewide and national races.

But if DiGiorgio was worried about the Democrats’ surge on Tuesday, he was not letting on.

He did, however, suggest that Republicans would not let the results wash off their backs as the parties now head toward the general election in November.

“To the extent that they’re seeing higher intensity on their side,” DiGiorgio said, “I thank them for letting us know -- and we’ll make sure we’re on our A-game.”