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A rot within the Republican machine?

It has been making the rounds since last week, but if you haven’t yet read Jason Fagone’s gripping account of the deterioration of the once-dominant Montgomery County Republican machine in this months’ Philadelphia Magazine, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

It has been making the rounds since last week, but if you haven't yet read Jason Fagone's gripping account of the deterioration of the once-dominant Montgomery County Republican machine in this months' Philadelphia Magazine, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

There is some great writing and a lot of surprising detail including this exchange from the night of the 2007 election victory that propelled strange bedfellows James R. Matthews and Bruce L. Castor Jr. into a short-lived Republican majority on the board of commissioners. Chatting just before making their victory speeches, Castor told Matthews he'd spent Election Day playing golf instead of campaigning. Days later, an infuriated Matthews cut his now-infamous deal with Democrat Joseph M. Hoeffel III that edged out complete Republican control.

"It just sat in my craw," Matthews recalls. "Like: You dog. You dog. All of these people worked really hard, and they lost. And you played golf."

Today, Castor says that Matthews should have been thanking him: Matthews only won "because I was on every television set in the entire jurisdiction saying that voters should vote for him." Also, "I campaigned the whole day, but instead of eating lunch, I played nine holes of golf with my son." According to Castor, he was just having a little fun at Matthews's expense: "I knew that Jim was wound up so tight, and he was in danger of losing, so I thought it would be great to pull his chain and say I spent the day playing golf."

Well, we all know how that worked out…

There's plenty more to unpack -- and reactions to the piece from MontCo's Democrats and Republicans have been mixed. But Fagone seems to miss the point in at least one regard. He points to the in-fighting between Castor and Matthews (and their various backers) as what has been eating away at the party from within. But signs of the GOP's cracking have been evident for much longer. The last few years of public bickering are more a symptom – less a cause – of the party's larger problems.

As far back as 1991, the internal decay of the top-down management that had carried the Republican committee for so long was spilling out into public. That year Mario Mele and Jon D. Fox ran a successful primary challenge against the party's endorsed commissioner candidates – Paul B. Bartle and Floriana M. Bloss -- and won. Such an audacious move would have been unheard of in the party once so unified Ronald Reagan described it as one of the three strongest GOP counties in the United States.

But the two figures that made that possible have once again emerged as driving figures in the contentious Castor-Matthews years: Robert Asher, candy maker, major Republican donor and state committee member, and Hoeffel, who served his first term as "minority" commissioner with Mele and Fox.

Asher dared to buck party leadership then, backing his own candidates, and insisted upon Matthews place on the ticket in '07. Hoeffel – wily in his own right – managed to spot the cracks in both administrations and work deals that helped him gain more influence than usual for a minority commissioner. In '91, he and Mele formed a deal similar to – although less damaging to the GOP – as the one Hoeffel would later form with Matthews.

Demographic changes can't be discounted either. The Democrats were chipping away at the Republican's voter registration majority long before the Castor-Matthews election and that's only continued to grow. They've held a growing majority since that vote. Republican Committee Chairman Robert Kerns has repeatedly said that he's less worried about registrations than which lever voters pull in the ballot box.

But, as many of the county's Republican faithful argue, the party should be worried about registrations. Gone are the days when the GOP can count on the dominant turnout in Montgomery County without having to work for it. The public personas of the party's candidates and the committee's slipping grip on party members at large should concern those steering the ship. For too long, some party insiders say, the MontCo Republican Committee has taken winning for granted. Now, they may be in danger of losing.

There's much more to touch on in the magazine piece – including its lengthy look at the GOP's new money man Gladwyne resident Vahan Gureghian – but I'll save that for a later post. What did you think of Fagone's article? Let us know in the comments.