As national Republicans look to retake the White House in 2016, their local compatriots in the D.C. GOP will face a substantially more modest goal: getting a single seat on the D.C. Council. These days, though, even that might beyond the party’s grasp.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time to be an ambitious District Republican. The party represents a miniscule percentage of District voters, and its national colleagues spend their time trying to overturn the city’s laws. Republican’s one loophole to power has been overrun by party-hopping Democrats, while the party itself is still smarting after a bruising leadership fight.
That hasn’t stopped the remaining Republicans from trying to rebuild—and maybe regain elective office in the process.
“We are not as relevant as we were only a few years ago, and that’s what I’m trying to change,” says José Cunningham, the D.C. GOP’s new chairman.
It shouldn’t be this hard. In the 1973 Home Rule charter, congressional Republicans subsidized their local little brothers by creating the two at-large Council seats that effectively can’t be held by Democrats. This worked out pretty well for the D.C. GOP until hungry Democrats realized they could just change their party affiliation to “Independent” and take the seats instead. The Council’s current successful examples of party-hopping are at-largers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso.
The party hasn’t held a Council seat since 2009, when charismatic Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz lost a primary challenge to Pat Mara, who went on to lose the general election himself. Even Schwartz doesn’t want much to do with the party now—in 2014, she declined an offer to take the party’s mayoral nomination, choosing to lose as an Independent instead.
When the D.C. GOP held its leadership vote in January, the blame for the party’s sorry state fell on then-Chairman Ron Phillips, a cigar-chomping Florida operative with a lobbying background. Phillips’ taste for in-fighting went down poorly with more moderate local Republicans, who suffered the double injury of being in a powerless party, then being hassled for the privilege.
In one memorable email sent ahead of the vote, failed 2014 GOP Council chairman candidate Kris Hammond lamented that Phillips even turned an argument about who should pay for croissants into an attack on him. In early January, the party booted Phillips in favor of Cunningham, a prominent gay fundraiser.
Now the D.C. GOP has new leadership in Cunningham and Mara, the party’s new executive director. It’s trying to pay off debt racked up in the Phillips year (Cunningham won’t say how much remains) and is looking for a new headquarters. Mara tells LL that the party is trying to rebuild connections with alienated Republicans through a mail campaign.
The D.C. GOP faces another challenge: actually convincing anyone to run for the humble offices that the party has a better—but still slim—chance of taking. In 2016, seats in Wards 2, 4, 7, and 8 will be on the block, as well as two at-large spots.
“Someone might pop up in Ward 2,” Mara says. “You could get somebody in Ward 4, and then I know we could have someone in Ward 7.”
If Republicans want to compete for a Council seat next year, they’d have to start early—really early. New Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau only knocked off Jim Graham after a nearly two-year-long campaign, and Grosso started his 2012 election campaign against Michael Brown a year in advance. And neither of them had an “R” next to their name. Complicating things further, Mara says potential office-seekers generally look for a more prestigious post than a Council spot, even if there’s no way they’ll win it.
“There’s always people coming out of the woodwork to run for mayor,” Mara says.
Even taking one of the at-large seats looks nigh impossible for Republicans. Last year, Republican at-large candidate Marc Morgan received just 2.8 percent of votes cast in the race for two seats, one of which was vacated by ex-Republican David Catania. Hammond, who was essentially the entire challenger field to Chairman Phil Mendelson, received only 6.8 percent—only a little more than the percentage of people who didn’t vote in the race at all.
The long-term outlook for D.C. Republicans is just as abysmal, even as the party looks to win over young residents who are settling down with families. Roughly 75 percent of District voters are registered as Democrats, while only around 6 percent are registered Republicans.
Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill, led by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, are more interested than they have been in decades in overturning local District laws.
“I can’t say that it doesn’t hurt here,” Mara says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery