A bubbling feud in the Montgomery County Republican Committee has burst to a full boil just days before the election, with county commissioner candidate Joe Gale accusing party leaders of sabotaging his campaign.
State Rep. Mike Vereb, chairman of the county party, said Gale is "flat-out lying" and stepping on the party to boost his own antiestablishment brand.
The volleys reflect the intra-party tension that has grown in recent months as Gale ran his "outsider" campaign.
The GOP once had intended to run a joint ticket of two veteran township commissioners, Steve Tolbert Jr. of West Norriton and Scott Zelov of Lower Merion, in hope of wresting a majority back from the Democrats who control county government.
But after losing the party's endorsement, Gale stayed in the race and beat Zelov in the May primary by exactly 1,000 votes. He built a fervent base among antiabortion conservatives and others who were unhappy with the county party, railing against the "good old boys network" that he said refused to support him even after he won the nomination.
Some party loyalists were outraged as Gale, a Lansdale mortgage loan specialist, skipped committee meetings and ignored their pleas not to damage the party, doing things such as signing a petition in favor of an independent Supreme Court candidate.
"Everybody was reaching out to Joe and to [Sean, his brother and campaign manager]. And they were basically spitting in their face and looking for a battle," said Joseph Meo, a local committeeman. "That's their strategy, I guess."
"They have the philosophy, 'We have to do what's best for the party.' I don't think that. It's called public service for a reason," Gale said. "The voters didn't pick me to be someone who kisses the ring and plays 'Mother May I?' and bows down."
Internal disputes and personality clashes are nothing new in the Montgomery County GOP, but they add more disadvantages to a party that has lost its edge in voter registration and fund-raising after more than 100 years as a powerhouse.
This week, Gale began sending emails to supporters and the news media, alleging that party officials threatened his donors and snooped on his campaign vendors.
Vereb responded, "Absolutely false."
At the committee's fall dinner, Gale wrote, Meo shouted at him, "I'd like to slice your throat and rip your esophagus out."
Meo denied it was a threat against Gale, saying instead the statement was "locker room talk, an analogy" aimed at trying to get Gale back on the team. He said he considered himself a mentor to Gale and believed the 26-year-old was being led astray by far-right advisers.
People on both sides of the commissioners race are now encouraging supporters to "bullet vote" - vote for only one candidate when they could vote for both.
The tactic, more familiar in party strongholds like Philadelphia, all but guarantees that the Democrats will retain the majority on the three-member board.
Tolbert, a West Norriton commissioner and Iraq War veteran who teaches finance at St. Joseph's University, has largely stayed above the fray as Gale trades barbs with Vereb and others.
The fact that Tolbert and Gale are not running on a joint ticket is notable, given that it's only been one election since Democrats took control of county government.
The 2011 win by Josh Shapiro and Leslie S. Richards was a nationally significant political shift, the first time in county history that Democrats had controlled the courthouse.
Shapiro and Valerie A. Arkoosh - who was appointed commissioner in January after Richards was appointed state transportation secretary - head into Tuesday's election with several advantages over Tolbert and Gale: an 8.8 percentage-point lead in voter registration, incumbency, a party united behind them, and nearly $300,000 left in their joint account without even touching their individual candidate funds.
With the odds stacked against Republicans, said political pollster G. Terry Madonna, "it changes the dynamic of these races" and pits the minority party against itself.
Gale's antiestablishment message may play well in some areas, Madonna said, but overall Montgomery County Republicans tend to be among the most moderate in the state.
"You don't have as many of the evangelicals and tea party and the other elements, but you do have a sense of the antiestablishment wing of the party playing out down there," said Madonna, of Franklin and Marshall College. "The party has to walk a fine line as it deals with those two factions."
According to sources with knowledge of Democrats' polling data, Gale's aggressive grassroots campaigning is translating into relatively high name recognition.
Until this week, Gale also had a sizable lead in fund-raising. Tolbert got last-minute infusions of $30,000 from the state Republican Party on Sunday and $15,000 on Tuesday from PA Future Fund, which is led by businessman Robert Asher, one of the state's most influential Republicans.
The Shapiro-Arkoosh campaign, meanwhile, has raised more than $745,000 since the primary - nearly six times as much as Gale and Tolbert put together.
*Note: This article has been updated to reflect Tolbert's new teaching location.