A new era began Tuesday in Montgomery County as two Democratic candidates stood poised to take control of the county's government for the first time in its history.

With nearly 70 percent of precincts reporting, the duo of Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards held a comfortable lead over GOP rivals Bruce L. Castor Jr. and Jenny Brown.

Related stories

"Leslie and I are extremely grateful for the support of Montgomery County," Shapiro said. "We know we have a lot of work to do and we're going to do it in a bipartisan manner."

Meanwhile, Castor - the outspoken incumbent who conceded the Democratic majority just after 11 p.m. - stood in danger of possibly losing his seat on the board altogether.

Both Shapiro and Richards individually exceeded his vote tally as of late Tuesday. Only about 1,000 votes separated Castor and his running mate, Lower Merion Commissioner Jenny Brown.

"I'm hoping I'll finish fourth," Castor said dryly. "But I'm afraid it's going to be third."

The three-man commissioners board is made up of the two top vote-getters in the race, with a third seat reserved for the minority party.

But down the ticket results weren't as clear late Tuesday for nine row offices and two common pleas court races.

Only Democratic incumbent Clerk of Courts Ann Thornburg Weiss had taken a significant lead over her Republican rival Moon Ahn as of late Tuesday. And for Diane Morgan, the county's incumbent Democratic controller, a victory or a loss over challenger Stewart Greenleaf Jr. hung on the balance of less than 400 votes.

But while her colleagues sweated each new batch of poll numbers, popular Republican District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman enjoyed a respite.

She was the only unopposed candidate on the ballot this year, a status she described as humbling earlier in the day.

Since the start of the campaign, Democrats have cast this year's race as their best chance to seize control of the local government for the first time in the county's history.

After a close race in 2007, the party jettisoned longtime standard bearer Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel III in favor of two fresh faces.

And for months, Shapiro, a 38-year-old state representative from Abington, and Richards, 44, a Whitemarsh Township supervisor, blanketed the county with nonstop schedules. Together, the pair raised more than $2 million on pledges to hold the line on taxes, rein in county spending and restore civility to local government.

If Republicans took that last promise as a dig at their marquee candidate, they had reason to do so. Castor, an outspoken former district attorney, has emerged as a controversial figure during his first term in as a commissioner.

After a 2007 race where he dominated the vote, his running mate James R. Matthews formed a bipartisan agreement with Hoeffel to edge out Castor. Ever since, Castor has frequently and publicly clashed with his colleagues and served as a consistent "no" vote on major county initiatives.

But during this year's campaign, the 50-year-old from Lower Salford held up his contrarian streak as badge of honor, saying he stayed true to Republican ideals. He and Brown, a 45-year-old Lower Merion commissioner, attempted to paint their Democratic rivals as tax-and-spend liberals.

Analysts from across the state closely monitored Tuesday's results, calling Montgomery County a potential bellwether for the state in the 2012 presidential and congressional races.

Since Democrats gained a voter registration edge in 2008 in what was historically the state's center of GOP power, that gap has only grown. As of last week, the county had about 36,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Some political watchers had characterized the county's Democratic surge - based primarily in communities closer to Philadelphia - as a fluke brought on during the Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

But last year, Montgomery County went for losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato and Senate hopeful Joe Sestak, while most other suburban counties returned to their traditionally Republican roots.

A win for Democrats on Tuesday shows the party's gains in recent years had legs, local party chairman Marcel Groen said.

"After gaining so much, it comes to a point where you have to start winning," he said.

Staff writer Tom Infield contributed to this article.

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @inqmontco on Twitter. Read his blog, "MontCo Memo," at www.philly.com/montcomemo