Montgomery County's 2011 GOP primary was supposed to be a sleeper.
But with seven candidates vying for the two nominations for the Board of Commissioners, signs of old schisms reemerging, and a debate over the party's finances, it's shaping up to be a raucous one.
State Rep. Kate Harper this week became the latest candidate in the race, touting her record of consensus-building as an antidote to three tension-plagued years under the board's current members.
She joined a field that includes a telegenic and outspoken former district attorney, two Lower Merion officeholders, and a centrist incumbent whose recent record has angered many in the party's ranks.
"We need public servants who want the job of serving our county, who are not just padding a resume or filling time while they wait for another office," Harper said.
For those unfamiliar with the operatic twists of Montgomery County politics over the last three years, here is how many expected it to play out: The county GOP would dump Commissioners Chairman James R. Matthews from its 2011 ticket in retaliation for his 2007 power-sharing pact with Joseph M. Hoeffel III, the lone Democrat on the three-man board. The odd man out, Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., would lead the Republican ticket, and while there would be some negotiating over who his running mate would be, Republicans would emerge united for November's election after the years of tense relations caused by the Matthews pact.
So much for expectations.
With less than a month to go until the party's nominating convention, Matthews still appears to be out and Castor remains the favorite for leading man.
But the jockeying over the second candidate threatens to tug at the same strings that led to 2007's unraveling.
"There is a major debate brewing right now within the Republican Party," Castor said.
So far, much of that deliberation has centered on the role of behind-the-scenes power brokers.
In 2007, Robert Asher, a candy maker and one of the local party's major financial backers, supported putting Matthews on the ticket with Castor. When Matthews struck his deal with Hoeffel, many GOP stalwarts blamed their misfortunes on Asher's influence on party decisions. The county's Republican commission elected a leadership team in 2008 that promised to lessen the influence of single donors.
Since then, Asher and his fund-raising committee - the Pennsylvania Future Fund - have not made a single donation to the Montgomery County GOP, although money has continued to flow to individual candidates.
Harper, who also sought a commissioner nomination in 2007, has accepted nearly $16,000 from Asher during her decade in the state House.
With Asher's diminished role in the local party, another wealthy donor, aligned with the party leadership, has filled the void: Gladwyne lawyer, educator, and billboard company owner Vahan Gureghian.
He contributed more than a quarter of the money the local party took in last year. This year, he has thrown his support - and money - behind Lower Merion Supervisor Jenny Brown, a newcomer to countywide politics.
Castor hasn't publicly decided on a running mate, but he has questioned the influence of any big-money donor on the nomination process.
That three-way division could aid any of the remaining candidates, party insiders said, and one might emerge as a compromise nominee. They are former Lower Merion School Board President Jill Govberg, Montgomery County Jury Commissioner Marie Cavanaugh, and former Plymouth Council President Nick Salamone.
But while the horse-trading and bickering may now dominate internal conversations, county Republican Committee Chairman Robert Kerns said he remained confident that his party would rally behind whoever emerged.
"If the party leadership is doing the right job, they're picking good candidates," he said in an interview. "Sure, there are people who have their own agendas. That's part of politics."