The last time that Democrats controlled any of the county seats in the Philadelphia suburbs, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and The Cosby Show was No. 1 on television.

Carl Fonash and fellow Democrat Lucille Trench won power in Bucks County in 1983 by vowing to halt a controversial pumping project along the Delaware. Four years later, after they had failed to block it, voters restored a Republican majority on the county board of commissioners.

"That was it," recalled Fonash, now 75. "We had one term."

In the generation since then, Democrats are 0-for-24 across the suburbs. In each of four counties, they've lost each of six quadrennial county elections.

They hope this year will be different.

Democrats have a chance to win at least one courthouse battle Nov. 8, perhaps in Montgomery County or Bucks County.

They were oh-so-close in the last election, in 2007. And now they are better funded, better organized, and have made gains in voter registration. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Montgomery and Bucks, and are close to even in Delaware County.

"Four years ago, in Montgomery County, there were 28,000 more registered Republicans; now there are 36,000 more registered Democrats," said Marcel Groen, the Democratic county chairman.

"For the first time in history, it won't be an upset when we win," he said.

Although they may have less chance of gaining control in Delaware County, Democrats hope at least to break the Republicans' monopolistic hold on all five seats in the county council.

Andrew Reilly, the Delaware County GOP chairman, says he is taking the challenge seriously. The county has had an influx of residents from Philadelphia - many of whom have brought their Democratic voting habits with them.

"We have about 6,000 more Republicans than Democrats; our registration is about 50-50," Reilly said. "We anticipate it will be a close election."

In the fourth suburban county - Chester - Democrats have made inroads but are still at a disadvantage.

"Chester County is seen as one of the strongest Republican counties in the commonwealth," county GOP chairman Val DiGiorgio said.

The Democrats' worry - and the Republicans' hope - is that the sour national mood could drag down their candidates.

President Obama's popularity has sunk. And some moderates who have voted Democratic for president, governor, and Congress in recent elections could either sit out the election or revert to Republican habits.

It could be the opposite of 2007, when suburban dislike for President George W. Bush dragged down Republican tickets nearly everywhere.

"People are upset; they're worried about the economy; they're cranky," said Democrat Joseph M. Hoeffel 3d, who is stepping down as the minority Democrat on the Montgomery County commissioners.

Party analysts said it's hard to figure how national politics will affect local races. The old maxim is that there is no Republican or Democratic way to repair a bridge, run the county home, or administer state-mandated social services - all functions of county government.

At a recent League of Women Voters debate for Bucks County commissioner candidates, one top issue was which side would do a better job of holding down spending and taxes.

That sort of debate, Bucks GOP vice chairwoman Pat Poprik said, frames the election in terms favorable to Republicans. Voters might trust Democrats on protecting the environment, but they trust Republicans on taxes.

"If it's about taxes," she said, "we win."

In Montgomery County, Democratic commissioner candidates Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards have had to fight on the same turf. They have run a TV commercial saying it is their GOP foes - not they - "who have left the door open to raising taxes."

Republicans Bruce Castor and Jenny Brown have hit back with an ad saying, "We're the only candidates who have never raised taxes."

In Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties, voters will elect boards of commissioners. Four candidates - two from each party - will compete for three seats on each board.

In Delaware County, which has a different form of government, three of five county council seats are on the ballot. One party can hold all of the council seats, as the GOP has done since adoption of home rule in 1975.

Across the suburbs, voters will also select row officers to perform some of the jobs of county government - controller, coroner, register of wills, and, in some cases, sheriff and district attorney.

The stakes are high. In each county, a victory would help the successful party build its power base for the next election.

The majority gains control over no-bid contracts for professional services such as legal work, over who gets patronage jobs, and over who gets appointed to myriad county boards and commissions.

One reason Montco Democrats are perhaps in a stronger position is that they won five of eight row offices on the ballot in 2007. Each of those offices is a patronage haven.

In Bucks County, the waters have been roiled by a scandal within the courthouse.

Recorder of Deeds Barbara Reilly and two of her top assistants - all Republicans - are scheduled for trial Nov. 28 on felony charges. A county grand jury said workers in Reilly's office were pressured into doing political work and were paid for it with public funds.

The most money and public attention has been on the race in Montgomery County, where Democrats haven't won the courthouse for 140 years.

Shapiro, a state legislator, and Richards, a Whitemarsh supervisor, hope to capitalize on several years of divisiveness within county GOP ranks. The Democrats hope to raise $1.9 million, more than ever.

"We've knocked on 102,000 to 103,000 doors; we've made over 30,000 phone calls in this campaign; we have over 700 volunteers - so we are very, very confident," Shapiro said.

Castor, although an incumbent commissioner, has chafed at having little power. James R. Matthews, his 2007 running mate, cut him out by making an alliance with Democrat Hoeffel.

A former district attorney, Castor said he and his current co-candidate, Lower Merion Commissioner Brown, have worked well as a team.

"The election can't come soon enough for me," Castor said. "If the election were held today, I think we'd win, and we'd win big."

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Contact staff writer Tom Infield
at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.