WEST CHESTER — Since 1861, with the election of West Chester resident Thomas Bateman, there have been 59 Republicans elected to serve as Chester County commissioner. Time was, there was no surer bet in Pennsylvania politics than that a Republican team of commissioners would be elected to run the county courthouse and government.

Observers said in the heady years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, half of all registered Republicans could drop dead the day before the November election and the party would still run the table.

That was then. This is now.

On Tuesday, county Democrats scored a perfect 9-for-9 in a sweep of countywide elections, from county commissioners to district attorney and sheriff to Common Pleas Court judge and down to prothonotary, recorder of deeds, and register of wills.

“When the votes started rolling in, they just kept rolling in,” said Patrick O’Donnell, the once-elected, once-appointed Democratic commissioner whose political career in the county spans 50 years.

Thoughts that the Democrats might pick up an office or two in the courthouse as the Republicans reasserted their dominance in county politics quickly turned to shock-and-awe as the candidates forced early leads that kept up through the night, ending with a resounding roar of a blue wave crashing on the county’s figurative shore.

“I think we were on the edge of our seats through the evening,” Dick Bingham, the chairman of the Chester County Democratic Committee, said as he watched returns come in through Tuesday night. “We were pretty sure (the party’s candidates would do well), but we were not taking anything for granted.”

However, by the time the returns hit 85 percent, Bingham said he knew a sweep was in the works.

“From the first, we never fell behind,” he said. “It was a quite an exciting and emotional evening.” 

In 2020, the county where the GOP flourished for so many years will have only one party member in county office, incumbent commissioners’ Chairwoman Michelle Kichline, who will become the county’s first Republican minority commissioner on the three-member board in modern history.

“For the most part, we took everything,” said an exhilarated Margaret Reif, the county Controller, who worked the polls all day for her fellow Democrats and watched voters line the ballot booths. “I can’t believe it.”

The signs were apparent to those who knew where to look. For O’Donnell, the fact that so many voters — 40,936 to be exact — chose the straight Democratic Party ticket option was an early sign. Then the turnout — 39.9 percent — which normally favors the party, was another.

But as the individual precincts began reporting their results, it became clear that the GOP’s slight edge in registration — 42 percent to the Democrats’ 40 percent — would not stem the tide.

In East Goshen, the most Republican of Republican strongholds, Democratic commissioner candidates Josh Maxwell and Marian Moskowitz won two of the township’s nine precincts, and their Republican counterparts, incumbents Terence Farrell and Kichline, were winning the other seven by sometimes only two or four percentage points.

Then came West Goshen, New Garden, and Uwchlan, the other county municipalities where Republicans have the largest number of voters, precincts started to fall the Democrats' way with regularity. In New Garden, Maxwell and Moskowitz won two of three precincts; in West Goshen, the pair took six of 10 from Farrell and Kichline. In Uwchlan, where the county’s anti-pipeline battle has played out on the front page all year, the Democrats won eight of the nine precincts.

In Tredyffrin, the county’s most populous municipality with the most number of registered voters, Moskowitz and Kichline would figuratively go head-to-head. Both are residents there and well known politically, Moskowitz having run for state House of Representatives five years ago and Kichline, a lifelong resident, having served as township supervisor.

Moskowitz, a county businesswoman, won 16 of the township’s 17 precincts, sometimes by almost 300 votes. She left the township with a plurality over Kichline of 1,200 votes — 5,555 to 4,298 — crucial when building a majority.

In the end, Moskowitz won the most votes of any of the commissioner candidates, with 70,842, followed by Maxwell, with 68,914. Kichline, coming in third with 63,779 votes, will serve with them on the Board of Commissioners in 2020, while Farrell, making perhaps his last run for public office in a career spanning 20 years, came in last with 62,287 votes.

Al votes are unofficial until certified.

Aside from Maxwell and Mokowitz, the party’s victorious candidates included Bret Binder of East Bradford and Analisa Sondergaard of Tredyffrin for Common Pleas Court; Deb Ryan for district attorney; Fredda Maddox for sheriff; Debbie Bookman of Coatesville for prothonotary; Chris Pielli of West Goshen for recorder of deeds; and Michelle Vaughn for register of wills.

Ryan bested her opponent, Mike Noone of West Chester, by 76,251 votes to 62,958 votes, or 54 percent to 45 percent; Maddox defeated Jim Fitzgerald of West Goshen with 73,072 votes to 65,837 votes, or 52 percent to 47 percent; Bookman defeated incumbent Prothonotary Matthew Holliday of West Chester by 72,282 votes to 65,256, or 52 percent to 47 percent; Pielli beat Amber Little Turner of Coatesville by 73,517 votes to 64,799 votes, or 53 percent to 46 percent; and Vaughn won her race with 74,171 votes to incumbent Register of Willis Terri Clark of West Goshen with 64,175 votes, or 53 percent to 46 percent.

“Tough night,” remarked Chester County Republican Committee Chairman Rick Loughery on Wednesday morning. “I think we ran a strong campaign, we fought really hard, and our candidates worked really hard. I am proud of our effort. It’s disappointing on many levels. I wish the results would have been different.”

If there was any solace to be had for county Republicans, it's that they were not alone in defeat. GOP candidates in Delaware and Bucks counties, as well as Philadelphia, also went down to defeat. “It was widespread across the Philadelphia region,” Loughery said. “It is shocking, but these are the times we live in.”

Meanwhile, at the municipal level, Democrats won the majority of races.

In New Garden, seats historically retained by Republicans were swept away by Democrats David Unger and Kristie Bradowski over Republicans Richard Ayotte and Randy Geouque for two seats on the board.

Democrats seeking to gain seats for Caln commissioners easily defeated Republican incumbents. Democrats Mark Evans and Paul Mullin, with 30 percent and 28 percent of the vote respectively, defeated Republicans George Chambers and Chuck Kramer there.

In West Bradford, Democrat Kevin Houghton defeated Republican Steven Williams and in Easttown Democrat Michael Wacey defeated Republican Allessandra Nichols. The hotly contested race for a single seat in West Goshen was won by Democrat Ashley Gagne over Republican David Sommers.

Reif, who was elected controller in 2017 in the Democratic Party’s first “blue wave” at the courthouse, said she worked at as many as eight polling places in the center of the county and saw “huge turnout.” But what to make of it, she wondered.

“We didn’t know (who the voters were),” she said. “We were getting nervous. Is it possible that this is a high Republican turnout? We didn’t take anything for granted.” Now, she said, the county will have a chance to re-examine how things are run in the courthouse. “It is time for a change in the way things have been done. We can’t do business the way we have been doing it.”

For O’Donnell, who served as commissioner from 1980 until 1984, and again from 2006 to 2008, Tuesday’s results were something “I dreamed for, I prayed for.” But he said he firmly believes the voter registration trend that has seen Democrats poised to gain a plurality of Republicans made it only a matter of time before the party captured the courthouse.

“We probably would have gotten here in the next six to 10 years, but (President Donald J. Trump) just speeded that up.

“This happened because of Trump,” O’Donnell declared Wednesday. “He is such a disgusting president, and everyone in Chester County thinks so.” Both Republicans and Independents, thus, feel comfortable switching to casting a Democratic ballot. “I think that says something about 2020,” when Trump’s name will be on the ballot, presumably. “What is going on in Washington heightens the political dynamic here.”

O’Donnell attributed the party’s success to equal parts demographic changes and population growth; a distaste for the direction of the national GOP; and a heightened organization among party candidates and supporters.

“We have a lot of people doing a lot of hard work,” he said. “People are knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, doing all the political grunt work” that results in success.

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544. 

To contact Staff Writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

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