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Montco GOP Candidates Seek to Prevail Over History, Voter Registration

Joe Biden carried Montgomery County by 25 points over Donald Trump in 2020.

Liz Ferry and Tom DiBello believe they can turn it from blue back to red. Their plan? Winning the support of its 64,423 unaffiliated voters.

“We are planning on retaking the county for Republicans and believe our commonsense positions will resonate with all voters,” said Ferry. She and DiBello are running as the Republican candidates for Montgomery County commissioner.

Their optimism may sound like a fantasy. Even running against relatively unknown Democrats Jamila Winder and Neil Makhija won’t be easy. The Republican Party’s reversal in the county in recent years has been dramatic.

In 1999, Montgomery County Republican voter registrations outnumbered Democrats 266,161 to 159,731. Just over a decade later, when Democrats took control of county government, Democratic registrations had surged past the GOP 245,562 to 209,519.

As of two weeks ago, there were now 301,523 registered Democrats and just 202,983 Republicans in the county, according to state records.

Republican Tom Ellis, a lawyer who was a county commissioner from 2004 to 2008, told DVJournal that Republicans are fighting an image problem because of former President Donald Trump and the abortion issue. Many Delaware Valley mainstream Republicans have rejected Trump after years of scandal and abrasiveness from the former president.

“Montgomery County was the first of the collar counties to go Democrat,” said Ellis. “Some of it was external pressures, but some was internal.”

“The suburban Republicans, the collar counties, were always fiscally conservative but socially moderate. And as long as you could deliver, keep the taxes down, that’s all people wanted,” said Ellis.

“The social stuff came in with Roe v. Wade, and that really hurt the party. And when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in June, it hurt candidates in the November election, like Todd Stephens.”

Stephens, a long-serving state representative for the Horsham area, narrowly lost his seat. “There were a number of people, especially women, who said they were not voting for any Republican,” said Ellis.

“There were a lot of intra-party struggles, which caused our downfall,” he added. He cited fights between donors and incumbent candidates, as well as intra-party fighting between candidates and established politicians.

“It would have come eventually,” Ellis said, pointing to increased Democratic migration to the county.

The GOP’s nadir in Montgomery County may have been in 2011 when Robert Kerns was the local party chairman, and county commissioners’ seats flipped to Democrats. Kerns managed to face down a rebellion from GOP members but later resigned after he was charged with rape. He pled no contest to indecent assault in 2014, eventually losing his law license and registering as a sex offender.

Former Montgomery County GOP chair Liz Preate Havey, now state party secretary, agreed that Trump “lost the support of suburban voters, especially women.”

“If you talked to people who worked at the polls, the pushback on Trump was like we’ve never seen before,” she told DVJournal.

“And I saw pushback on Bush. The pushback on Trump in the suburbs is tremendous, in Montgomery County was tremendous, and it continues to be. And it’s not just Democrats.”

“I think a lot of it was his personality,” added Havey. “There were a lot of popular policies that he implemented.”

Young voters also had an outsized effect in 2022, Havey said. “Ninety percent of Bryn Mawr students voted Democrat, and they came out in droves in the last election,” she said. “That impacts the Republicans’ ability to win.”

Like Ellis, Havey thinks abortion hurt more than helped Republicans in recent politics. “[T]he Dobbs decision gave Democrats a rallying cry,” she said. “I think pro-life leaders need to rethink their strategies. That could bring back some of our Republican voters.”

Havey is more optimistic about the GOP’s future in the county today.

“We had two commissioners who didn’t get along,” Havey said. “And certainly Joe Gale attacking his fellow Republicans didn’t help. Eight years of (Gale) being the face of the party certainly hurt us.”

But now, “There are two strong candidates who are going to talk about the issues and who are going to debate the Democrats and not sound foolish.”

Montgomery County GOP Chair Christian Nascimento was also hopeful about the near-term future of the GOP in the area.

“The reason that Tom and Liz can win is that we have a unified ticket running for both seats for the first time in over a decade,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, “are fighting over a pay-to-play culture that is well documented and turning off registered Democrats and Independents. “

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