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D.C. GOP challenger Jose Cunningham

Have you heard of the D.C. Republicans? LL had to look this up, but apparently they’re a real political party that once even had some seats on the D.C. Council.

If the party ever had salad days in a city with a 75 percent Democratic electorate, they’re long gone now. As D.C. GOP members regularly bemoan, even the upstart Libertarians ran more candidates in November’s general election.

Party faithful aiming to change that have settled on a target: D.C. GOP Chairman Ron Phillips. Ahead of a leadership vote tonight over whether Phillips should receive another two-year term, he has become the target of an energetic ouster campaign from challenger candidate José Cunningham and a coalition of the closest thing the District has to prominent Republicans.

Complaints about Phillips range from his management of the party’s finances to where he holds his meetings to the most persistent: In a city where Republicans need to stick together if they’re ever going to be a credible party again, he drives many of them away.

For what’s known nationally as the party of deep-pocketed donors, the D.C. GOP’s finances are hurting. While the party’s federal account raised $350,830 in 2011 and 2012, it raised just $19,615 in contributions in 2013 and 2014. Meanwhile, at least one party member has complained in emails in the run-up to the vote about how much of the party’s money is spent on Uber rides and at tony restaurants.

“I think it’s kind of ironic, because Republicans are kind of known for getting their fiscal house in order,” Cunningham says.

The party’s books have attracted national attention. “I shudder to think what our books look like,” Tony Parker, the Republican National Committee’s treasurer, wrote in a letter to District Republicans endorsing Cunningham.

The group’s financial problems could be behind its office woes. While the D.C. GOP once had an office, members say it now operates in much humbler circumstances from a desk at the RNC. Club meetings are now held at the Capitol Hill Club, which rankles Cunningham.

“It gives the impression that we’re some kind of elite organization that meets in Capitol Hill,” he says.

Less openly discussed is Phillips’ past, which includes a 2012 DUI conviction in the District and a campaign finance imbroglio in Florida. Phillips didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.

But perhaps what’s most made party stalwarts like frequent candidate Pat Mara back Cunningham—-and what’s most interesting as an explanation for why a party that literally has seats reserved for it on the Council can’t manage to get one—-is Phillips’ reputation for infighting.

Mara, the closest thing that the Republicans have had to a standard-bearer since he knocked off former Councilmember Carol Schwartz in the 2008 primary, lost in a surprisingly dismal third-place finish in the 2013 at-large election. Phillips soon blasted his candidate’s campaign in a widely circulated email, describing it as experiencing a “total collapse.” The club’s secretary, unhappy over Phillips’ email, resigned over the spat

“I think there’s a lot of agreement that he’s a divisive person,” says Bob Kabel, a former D.C. GOP chairman who’s become a frequent target for Phillips.

Phillips’ penchant for by-law feuds results in hilarious spats with the handful of other District Republicans. In an email dramatically entitled “Confessions of a Former Ron Phillips Supporter,” failed 2014 Council chairman candidate Kris Hammond describes a meeting he had with Phillips after they clashed over an internal party vote:

The bill came for our coffee and croissants. Ron reached over and picked up the check. “Don’t worry, I got this,” he said. “Thank you,” I replied. Ron responded, “Oh, so you let the guy you don’t support for chairman buy your food.”

The oldest joke about the D.C. Republican Party is that, with their slim roster, they could hold their meetings in a phone booth. The way things are going with this fight, even a phone booth might start to seem a little drafty.

Photo courtesy Jose Cunningham