Six months ago, shell-shocked Democrats in the suburbs of Philadelphia were so outraged by the election of President Trump that they pledged to “resist” by joining the political system and rebuilding their weakened party at the neighborhood level.
On Tuesday, voters from both parties in Pennsylvania will get the first chance to see if that outrage paid off.
Democrats are mounting full or nearly full slates of primary candidates in communities where, in prior years, they couldn’t drum up a single person to challenge entrenched Republicans for school board, local supervisor, or district justice posts.
In nine solidly Republican Bucks County municipalities where Democrats couldn't field a single candidate two years ago, the party is running challengers for supervisor or council.
Such activity is unusual for off-year elections, particularly after a presidential race. These traditionally are the most low-wattage races, with turnout often below 20 percent, even though they can have the most immediate impact on voters’ lives by shaping local taxes, laws, and school leadership.
But the outcome of the 2016 presidential election galvanized newcomers to run for school board or on local party committees, to help the party regain core strength. Just how many are now in the system could help determine the outcome of some races Tuesday.
Because Democrats and Republicans may cross-file on both ballots in school board and judicial primaries, the work of committee people -- who canvass neighborhoods and knock on doors to educate voters -- will be crucial. Republicans have long excelled at this, with ardent and abundant committee rank and file. But Democrats hope to gain ground.
Chester County Democratic committeeman Stephen Schur said he has 27 of 32 local committee posts filled heading into Tuesday -- compared with the seven he had on Election Day in November.
“We’ve got volunteers everywhere doing literature drops,” he said. “We’ve got thousands of pieces of materials and we’re running out.”
They are pushing to help elect three party-backed Democrats for four Owen J. Roberts school board seats, and a Democrat vying for a district justice slot. The races cover a seven-town zone that includes East, North and South Coventry Townships -- and didn't field a single Democratic candidate in 2015.
Pennsylvania Democrats -- traditionally strongest in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and in recent years, its surrounding counties -- are hoping to replicate a political strategy that, for years, has worked well for Republicans. The GOP so dominates locally in Pennsylvania that the party controls the legislature and, from that, the drawing of congressional districts to favor Republicans.
Its party leaders are confident it would remain in charge.
“I don’t care what they’re doing,” said Chester County GOP chief Val DiGiorgio, who also serves as state party chief. “We have a better ground game, we have more money, we have better candidates, and we have a county and school districts that are run very well.”
Joe Ciresi, who leads the Democratic committee in western Montgomery County, said he has struggled in the past to find viable candidates in some spots. This year, Ciresi said, the candidates are more motivated and more qualified.
“They’ve been knocking on doors, they’ve been doing fund-raisers,” Ciresi said. “They’re out there. They’re extremely motivated.”
Ciresi himself has been spending two nights a week knocking on doors with Richard Welsh, a Democratic candidate for district justice for an area that includes Limerick, Royersford, and Upper Providence. Welsh is running against three Republican candidates.
The opposition has taken notice.
“I see that they filed some people in places where in the past we would’ve ignored, and I know I heard that they’re knocking on doors in places like Upper Providence,” said Jim Saring, executive director of the Montgomery County GOP. “But our candidates are out there working just as hard if not harder, and at the end of the day I’ll be saying, 'Nice try, better luck next time.' ”
Saring said Republicans also have candidates running in some Democratic-controlled enclaves of Montgomery County -- including Conshohocken and Upper Merion -- and hope to pick up seats there in November.
Bucks County’s Democratic chief, John Cordisco, said an influx of liberal candidates in Republican towns this year reflects, in part, momentum from 2015, when a get-out-the-vote effort brought wins in places like Newtown Township.
Historically, voter turnout improves for the party that does not control the White House. If Trump antipathy continues, Democrats are hoping their local odds will improve even more. Cordisco said that was among topics discussed last week at a lunch with Gov. Wolf and all the southeastern Democratic Party leaders.
Republicans experienced their own Trump bump last year, drawing former Democrats or dormant conservatives to vote for the real estate magnate. They were well-represented in Bucks County, the one enclave in otherwise blue Southeastern Pennsylvania where he drew some of his greatest support.
GOP chief Pat Poprik predicted little would change in local races there come November.
“We’ll win like we usually do,” Poprik said, “because we put up the better candidates.”
Her GOP counterpart in Delaware County, Andrew Reilly, is equally skeptical of how far Democrats will go after Tuesday, despite their own burst of grassroots activity. “All they have in Delaware County is a lot of people who don’t have government experience and have never run for anything,” Reilly said.
Democratic Party chairman David Landau said his party is better positioned this year than in past years, running candidates for multiple county seats long held by the GOP and hundreds of election-board slots that help set the tone at polling places.
In Chester County, veterinarian John Melniczek and former Boeing executive Don Foy are first-time candidates. Both cite their dismay over Pennsylvania's swinging last fall for Trump over Hillary Clinton.
“I have always been involved in social causes, but the election shook me a little bit,” said Melniczek, 53, of East Vincent Township, who has two children in the Owen J. Roberts district, where he and Foy are running for board seats. “I’m a science guy. I like facts, and I feel concerned that a lot of decisions in public life are being based on opinions and not fact.”
Melniczek said he was surprised, at his first-ever party meeting in January, to learn something about northern Chester County that helped persuade him to take the primary plunge.
“I found out Democrats,” Melniczek said, “run for hardly anything.”