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DC Republican Party Tries—and Fails—to Get a Foothold in the City Council

GOP voters decline to show for Patrick Mara, earning him a third-place finish in the special election.

With Patrick Mara’s third-place finish in Tuesday’s election for an at-large city council seat, the local Republicans proved that even when the forces aligned for the best chance in decades to get a GOP candidate on the city council, they can’t make it happen. Mara and party leaders tried. They failed to get their voters to the polls. They lost.

Mara is a seasoned local politician. He has run for council twice before. He has good name recognition. He ran for and won the Ward 1 seat on the school board. He also had a plethora of endorsements. The Washington Post editorial board wrote four positive pieces, practically begging residents to elect Mara. The Northwest Current and the Examiner followed with endorsements. The Sierra Club jumped aboard, along with the DC Chamber of Commerce. An independent business group polled and advertised for Mara.

The nature of the election provided a rare opening for a Republican candidate. Because it was a special election, held to fill the vacancy when Phil Mendelson moved up to chair, it leapfrogged the primary that would have ended in a general election. That made it a beauty contest in which Republicans, Democrats, and Statehood candidates could compete on a level playing field. And because it was a special election not tied to a mayoral or presidential race, relatively few voters were expected to show, which meant that a small number of focused voters could win the day.

Being a seasoned candidate, Mara knew how to raise cash and focus his troops. He targeted his likely voters. The DC Republican Party has new leadership under chair Ron Phillips. He was able to attract $25,000 from the Republican National Committee. Phillips also recorded a phone message from New Jersey governor Chris Christie urging Republicans to vote for Mara, which went out Friday.

Mara stayed on message: ethically pure, fiscally conservative, socially progressive. DC voters didn’t buy it, and Republicans failed to support him.

Republicans are rare in DC, perhaps the most blue city in the nation. Democrats outnumber Republicans by ten to one. Every Republican is a long shot. But Mara was the best shot.

Carol Schwartz was the Republican everyone loved. She went from school board to city council to a pair of mayoral runs. Mara beat her in 2008 in a bitter primary. David Catania first ran as a Republican but became an Independent.

Perhaps the local Republicans have emerged from their Georgetown cave, where they roped themselves off for decades. Ron Phillips is trying desperately to balance the party on racial lines and spread it citywide. In any political system, two parties make for competition and better candidates. DC might be a one-party town for good, as it has been forever.

Phillips sounded both sad and perplexed. He says he’ll take a few weeks to study “issues” within the local Republican base.

“I want to see what’s wrong and fix it,” he says. “We’ll be back in 2014.”

But after Mara’s third-place finish—behind winner Anita Bonds and Elissa Silverman, both Democrats—2014 might be a lost cause.

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