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Democrats see Trump rebuke in historic wins in Pa. suburbs

Democrats in Philadelphia's collar counties have never seen a night like Tuesday. In Delaware and Chester Counties, they made history in what they consider an indictment of President Trump.

Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden won seats on the Delaware County Council on Tuesday — the first time ever that Democrats took more than one seat.
Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden won seats on the Delaware County Council on Tuesday — the first time ever that Democrats took more than one seat.Read moreDelaware County Democratic Committee

Never have Democrats in Philadelphia's collar counties had an election night like Tuesday's — and state party officials said it might well be a harbinger for statewide and national races in 2018.

In what was once thoroughly Republican territory, Delaware County Democrats won unprecedented victories. Their counterparts in Chester County broke a 212-year losing streak. And in Bucks County, Democrats took four of the row offices that had been held by Republicans: sheriff, controller, prothonotary, and recorder of deeds.

Democratic leaders say they successfully mined voter dissatisfaction with President Trump. Andrew Reilly, head of the Delaware County GOP, said they evidently did just that.

The Republicans still hold the majority on the five-member Delaware County Council, but Democrats won two seats, the first time they have gained more than one seat on the council or its predecessor board and the first time they have been represented on the board at all in four decades. Before Tuesday, no Democrat had outpolled a Republican in a council race.

As for Delaware County row offices, before Tuesday only one Democrat had won a race for sheriff — and that was in 1934, during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The party also swept races for controller and register of wills.

Buoyed state Democratic leaders say the results across the region bode well for Gov. Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey next year. In the first election since Trump took office, Democrats "showed up and showed out," said Sinceré Harris, the state party chief.

"I would much rather be a Democrat today going into next year," she said Wednesday. "Republican legislators in both Congress and in the state legislature, I think they should all be looking over their shoulders based on what we've seen in the four suburban counties."

The state Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Democrat Brian Zidek, a medical reinsurance executive, who with tech entrepreneur Kevin Madden became the first Delaware County Democrats to gain more votes than Republicans in the council race, had never run for public office and said he had realized the outcome was no sure thing.

"I knew Democrats were zero for 140 years," he said. "That tends to prevent one from being overconfident."

"I think I pretty much exemplify a lot of the people who have awoken after Trump's election last year," Zidek said. "I felt compelled because I couldn't sit by and watch that election happen unanswered. At that point, I was made aware of how powerful the Republican machine was in Delaware County."

The GOP's Reilly said he thought that his candidates ran better campaigns but that the Democrats were able to win by making the race about Washington. "It was a very, very difficult election for Republicans in upper-income suburbs," he said.

Democrats in Delaware County don't have the networks and routines that Republicans do, which could be challenges when they turn from celebrating to governing, said Ben Berger, associate political science professor at Swarthmore College. Tuesday's results also mark a new moment for the county's Republicans, who will have to work with Democrats.

"This is a great unknown of politics," he said.

Tuesday's results are "no guarantee that [Democrats] will continue to have the same results in the next year. Every election is a different picture," Berger said.

In Chester County — the only collar county with a Republican voter-registration edge — Democrats defeated the Republican incumbents for treasurer, controller, coroner, and clerk of courts. The last time Democrats won elections for these offices was 1799, when it was the Democratic-Republican Party, according to party officials. And for the first time in the county's history, all four winners were women.

John Cordisco, chair of the Bucks County Democratic Committee, said Democrats redoubled their shoe-leather efforts in getting out the vote this year. In 2015, canvassers knocked on more than 30,000 doors, Cordisco said. This year, he said, "we increased that effort, and hit about 120,000 doors."

Cordisco said Trump's tumultuous first year was a factor.

He and Brian McGinnis, chairman of the Chester County Democrats, both saw increases in party registrations.

"Overall, people are not satisfied by what's going on in Washington, D.C., especially with Donald Trump and the Republicans, and the state of Pennsylvania with the Republican-controlled legislature," said McGinnis, referring to Harrisburg's recent budgeting issues. "We need to show them that we can govern, that we have better ideas, that we have better values, and we have better candidates. If we can do that, we will be successful in 2018 and beyond."

McGinnis said the county party set records for funds raised and candidates recruited.

Todd Strine, who grew up and now lives with his family in Delaware County, worked on the campaign of his friend and fellow soccer coach, Zidek. Like many others, Strine, who runs an ambulance company, said Trump's election spurred him to get involved in politics. They both knew getting Democrats onto the council would be "a heavy lift," said Strine, 49.

Lauren DeMoll, a 61-year-old retired school administrator and registered Democrat who also is acquainted with Zidek, said she went to her polling place in Media Borough on Tuesday afternoon specifically to try to make history and break up "long-standing Republican control."

"It's just been that machine for so long," she said.

In Bucks County, Bensalem Township voters reelected Republican Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo, who has held the post for 23 years. During the campaign, DiGirolamo's challenger, Democrat and township Councilman Bryan Allen, attempted to link DiGirolamo to Cosmo DiNardo, the man charged in the high-profile killings of four missing young men from Bucks and Montgomery Counties. Allen sent mailers to voters criticizing the mayor for appointing DiNardo, 20, to the township's drug and alcohol advisory board despite DiNardo's run-ins with police.

Bucks County voters also reelected Republican District Attorney Matthew Weintraub over his challenger, Democrat Rich Scholer. Legal experts had praised Weintraub's decision in July not to pursue the death penalty for DiNardo in exchange for the location of remains and the admission that he had an accomplice.

Staff writer Colt Shaw contributed to this article.