Democrats have made historic registration gains in what once was profoundly Republican Delaware County. Now they are trying to do something else historic: win a county election.
It’s been four decades since the County Council became one of now seven in the state with an election system that doesn’t promote representation from a minority party. Since then, Democrats have lost every election for every seat, and even before the charter, no Democrats out-polled any Republicans.
This time around, Democrats believe that their nominees, tech entrepreneur Kevin Madden and medical reinsurance executive Brian Zidek, have a shot at ending that streak.
And they are looking for an assist from an unlikely source: President Trump.
David Landau, the party chairman, says candidates have been pushing the message: “If you want to send a message to Donald Trump, it starts in 2017.” Even the GOP acknowledges that could cost Republicans some votes.
The county voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton last year, giving her nearly 60 percent of the vote, and it has undergone a political sea-change in recent years.
Voter Registration in Delaware County
One of the nation’s most potent GOP machines ruled the county for nearly a century. But in recent years, the county has seen the type of Democratic registration gains similar to those of Philadelphia’s other collar counties. As registered Democrats outnumber Republicans for a fourth year, the county’s Democratic leaders like their prospects.
“We have the edge. I don’t think we’re going back,” said Landau. “We’re running the most vigorous campaign we’ve ever run for County Council and the row offices.”
Fifty years ago, registered Republicans in the county outnumbered Democrats nearly 4-1. Although Republicans outnumbered Democrats in all four of Philadelphia’s collar counties, the margin was largest in Delaware County. Four years ago, the number of Democrats in the county registered to vote crept past registered Republicans — by only 19 voters — for the first time that August. Now, Democrats lead Republicans by 16,525 voters.
Democratic registrations have benefited from an influx of former Philadelphians and upticks in racial diversity. In 2000, the population was 20 percent non-white; now it is close to 30 percent.
But the GOP has electoral inertia on its side, said Ben Berger, associate political science professor at Swarthmore College. Registration advantages can take years to bear fruit, especially in local elections, in which voter turnout usually is tepid, he said. He called John J. McClure, head of the Delaware County GOP for more than 50 years, a “political genius” who “organized one of most efficient and impressive political machines in the country.”
McClure’s political machine — the “War Board” — went out of existence in the mid-‘70s, but Republicans continued to use established practices to dominate. Republicans in the county remain well-organized, efficient, and skilled at turning social capital and relationships into political wins, Berger said.
“Making inroads against well-organized machines can be difficult,” he said. “For years, it’s been an uphill battle” for Democrats.
Republicans have attempted to make an issue of the fact that, in May, Democrats announced they were replacing a candidate who won the primary for County Council — Jennifer Leith — with Kevin Madden. But Leith, considered a potentially strong nominee, had dropped out of the race months before the primary. Republicans accused their rivals of “bait and switch” and said they had an obligation to inform voters of the change.
Landau said then that the two current candidates, Madden and Zidek, are the “best opportunity Democrats have ever had to win countywide.” He said they aim to fix inefficiencies in local government and increase transparency if elected.
Landau said his party is getting better at getting voters to the polls and is better organized. Democratic leaders also are relying on a less tangible metric — members of the party galvanized into action because of Trump’s presidency. The party has raised more money and gathered more volunteers than in previous years, Landau said.
Andrew Reilly, the GOP chairman, acknowledged that some people would be receptive to the nationalization of the race, but he said the election should be purely about local issues and knocked the Democratic candidates’ lack of public service experience.
He called the Republican council candidates — incumbent David White and John Perfetti — “common-sense local Republicans who have gotten the job done for years in Delaware County and are committed to this county.” He said the candidates will continue to help businesses prosper and will keep taxes down.
“Just because people register Democrat,” he said, “it doesn’t mean they’ll vote Democrat in local elections.”