Score one for the insurgents.

With the Republican mayoral primary race still too close to call, one thing is certain: Rebels trying to shake up the local GOP did far better than expected Tuesday.

That could have implications not only for the Meehan family, which has ruled local Republicans for three generations, but for state and national races looming in 2012.

GOP City Councilman Jack Kelly said the results don't speak well of the Republican City Committee, the party's local organization.

"It doesn't put City Committee in a very high standing right now," Kelly said. "They just didn't do a very good job, that's for damn sure."

After Tuesday's vote, the committee's endorsed mayoral candidate, former schoolteacher Karen Brown, led by 54 votes over real estate salesman John Featherman, the rebels' choice.

To be sure, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by more than 6-1 in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter remains a shoo-in.

But Featherman's strong showing against the endorsed GOP candidate has observers saying he and his friends have won at least a battle in their war to topple what former Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick Jr. once called the House of Meehan.

The abysmal voter turnout on Tuesday should actually have boosted the party's chosen candidates, St. Joseph's University history professor Randall Miller said.

In the unofficial count, just 12.9 percent of registered Republicans voted Tuesday.

"Low turnouts should favor organizations," said Miller, who studies these things. "If you can't get out your people to beat a challenger who has no money, it speaks volumes about your indifference, your incompetence, your lack of organization, or combinations thereof."

For a time, GOP boss Michael Meehan couldn't recruit anyone to run for mayor. He settled on Brown, who had been a Democratic candidate for City Council. She switched parties to run for mayor - only to have her four bankruptcy filings (which she attributes to her husband's illness) emerge as an issue.

She kept a low profile in the race, while Featherman used YouTube and knocked on many a door.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Meehan predicted Brown would win narrowly when all ballots are counted. "Unfortunately, she didn't get her message out. She's been a short-time Republican - but her opponent is a longtime Libertarian, only that didn't get spread around."

Yes, Featherman said, he was a Libertarian for five years, but he has been a Republican since 2001. And now he was flush with near-victory.

"Win or lose, we have, in my opinion, destroyed the party machinery," Featherman said. "I'm having so much fun because I've exceeded the expectations of everybody and because I'm going to be able to lead the Republican Party to a new beginning . . . the end of the Meehan dynasty."

Not so fast, say Meehan loyalists, who portray the insurgency as "an attempted power grab by" state Republican Committee Chairman Rob Gleason. The city GOP's Vito Canuso told the Philadelphia Daily News, "When Mr. Gleason stops sending all the money down here, then these guys will stop doing this."

Gleason is not shy about his goals. He said energizing GOP voters was good for the city - and good for his party in 2012 and beyond.

"I think people will look back on this election as the beginning of the rejuvenation of the Republican Party in Philadelphia," Gleason said Wednesday. "It could be pivotal in the race for president."

That may take a lot more energizing. The sum total of city Republicans voting Tuesday was fewer than 17,000.

Critics contend Meehan barely tries, and instead cuts deals with Democrats for patronage jobs and contracts. Meehan says he does his best in a heavily Democratic town.

He may need his best to keep one of his stalwarts in office. In the fall, City Commissioner Joseph Duda will be up against Al Schmidt, who is aligned with the rebel group and who polled well on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Schmidt - who used to work for Gleason - chose not to bash the local party: "My strategy is to reach out to like-minded Democrats . . . and to unify the Republican Party leading into the general election."

Patricia Giordano of Torresdale, a retired Gwynedd-Mercy College professor, said she, too, would like to see her party be more competitive.

She voted for Featherman because he sounded "more well-rounded than Brown," and for Schmidt because he'd be a new face in the commissioners' office.

"Duda," she said, "has been there, done that."

Are they listening in the House of Meehan?

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or

Inquirer staff writers Marcia Gelbart and Jeff Shields contributed to this article.