WEST CHESTER — The summer has not been kind to Chester County Republicans.

In the past two-plus weeks since the solstice on June 21, the county’s once dominant political party has seen a continued erosion of its voter registration edge; two media scandals involving top GOP figures; and the sudden departure from the 2019 local election ballot of one of its most recognizable county officials.

“It hasn’t helped the brand,” said John Kennedy, a professor of political science at West Chester University who has studied local and state political trends for years.

But what will it mean for Election Day in November?

On Monday, June 25, the Pennsylvania Department of State updated its voter registration numbers for each of the 67 counties. For the first time in modern history, the number of registered Republicans versus registered Democrats dipped below the 10,000 mark, leading by only 9,747 voters, or 42 percent to 38 percent, a virtual dead heat, according to one Republican observer. 

By July 1, that edge had been reduced even further, with the plurality of GOP voters at 9,518 out of a total of 348,929. Was it a harbinger of things to come?

The following day, Uwchlan attorney Val DiGiorgio, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Committee, resigned the position he held for more than two years after he was named publicly as having exchanged sexually suggestive text messages with a former Philadelphia City Council candidate.

DiGiorgio was expected to play a central role in the re-election efforts of President Donald Trump, who won the state in 2016 and needs it to compete in 2020.

Then on Friday, June 28, Chester County Controller Margaret Reif, a Democrat, announced that she had filed civil charges against county Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, among the county’s most well-known Republican politicians.

Reif contended that Welsh had been using her authority to enrich herself by approving exorbitant overtime payments to the man she lived and worked with, Lt. Harry McKinney. Reif said she wanted the sheriff to repay the county taxpayers more than $67,000 in overtime costs that should not have been approved.

Before the dust could settle from those charges — which Welsh has vigorously denied — and leading into the July 4 holiday, incumbent Republican District Attorney Tom Hogan stunned GOP leaders (and almost everyone else) by saying that he was quitting the D.A.'s race.

Hogan had easily won the party's nomination to oppose Democrat Deb Ryan, a former assistant prosecutor in his office. Hogan, who likely was going to face a stiff challenge from Ryan, cited the need to pay more attention to his wife and children as the motivation behind his withdrawal. There is no clear successor at this point.

“It is hard to imagine the (Republican) party having a more difficult time than it has had lately,” going back to the election last year, Kennedy said in an interview Friday.

"During the last year or so the Chester County GOP has exhibited a monumental display of political self-immolation that is breathtaking,” he continued, pointing to its loss of four county Row Office seats in 2017 and Congressional and state Legislature defeats in 2018. “The big question now is whether incumbent commissioners (Michelle) Kichline and (Terence) Farrell and their record can prove to be the last firewall for the party, because the Democrats are preparing to storm the gates.  

“And I guarantee you if they do lose control of county government this November, they will no longer be the majority party come election day 2020,” he said. “It’s going to be tough.”

Taking an opposite view was former U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, who while not downplaying the bruises the one-after-another turmoils had inflicted on the local party, said that what happens in the coming November election is not likely to hinge on those headlines.

Rather, he said national news might have more of an impact, if moderate Republicans and independents continue to recoil from the Trump White House and switch their votes to local Democrats.

“Terence and Michelle have done everything you are supposed to do (to win re-election) and haven’t done anything they are not supposed to do,” Costello said in an interview, speaking of Farrell and Kichline. “But for all intents and purposes, (voter) registration is even up. So the real issue is where do voters who are registered as Republicans but who see themselves as independents, and independents themselves, go? 

“If this is another referendum on Washington, D.C., that is a problem for Republicans,” he said.

The decrease in the Chester County GOP’s traditional edge in voter registration — what built the party’s control over positions in county government and at the local level — has been happening for years, largely because of demographic changes. But it has picked up speed in the last decade as voters turn away from what some refer to as Republican extremism.

A similar shift has taken place next door in Delaware County, where Democrats now outnumber the once all-powerful GOP, which at one time held a nearly 3-1 edge in voter registration.

The county, after having not supported a Democrat for president since 1964 in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, has voted for the Democratic candidate in two of the last three presidential elections — and went for GOP candidate Mitt Romney by only the thinnest of margins in 2012.    

As of April 22, the final day to register for the May 21 primary election, there were 148,638 registered Republicans, versus 138,261 registered Democrats. There were also 61,296 voters registered either as independents or as members of the Green or Libertarian or other parties.

Those figures mean that 42.6 percent of the county’s voters are Republicans, versus 39.7 percent Democrats and 17.6 percent others.

Although the percentages had changed little since the November 2018 election, the gap between the two parties closed by almost 900 voters from then until now — 877 to be exact — showing a continuing trend of voters favoring the Democrats. The gap between the two parties stood at 10,377 voters.

But now that gap has dwindled, closer to 8,000 voters than it is to 10,000. The state’s numbers show 148,533 GOP voters, 139,015 Democrats, and 61,381 independents and Third Party voters.

“I think the Republicans are still well-positioned at the top of the ticket,” said Costello. “But the ‘drip-drip-drip’ (of bad news) does not indicate positive momentum.”

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

comments powered by Disqus