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Philadelphia Republicans endured a ‘preposterous’ election season. What’s next?

The Republican Party in Philadelphia has faced a decade of infighting that continued through a brutal Election Day.

Mike Meehan, chairman of the Republican City Committee, said he has heard calls for his resignation.
Mike Meehan, chairman of the Republican City Committee, said he has heard calls for his resignation.Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff photographer

The chairman of the Republican City Committee saw Election Day as the not-so-merciful end to a grueling year in politics.

Mike Meehan, in a letter to his party’s ward leaders Monday, declared: "Election year 2019 has been preposterous to say the least.”

“I know all of us cannot wait until Wednesday to have it in our rear-view mirror,” Meehan added.

But what’s ahead for the local GOP?

Maybe not Meehan.

“I’ve already been asked by somebody to resign,” Meehan said Wednesday, after his party lost a City Council at-large seat it had held for seven decades and its mayoral nominee could not crack 20% of the vote. “My question is: Who is going to replace me? You look at the characters that are the Republican Party these days.”

Meehan is frustrated enough that he wouldn’t rule out stepping down. His party represents just 11% of the city’s registered voters, compared to 77% for the Democrats.

Among the troubles Meehan listed to his ward leaders in his letter: The party’s endorsed candidate for mayor caused a stir this spring when she announced that she had collected federal disability payments since 2010 because she was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder after she gave up cocaine in 2005.

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That candidate, Daphne Goggins, dropped out of the primary election because she failed to gather enough signatures from Republican voters to be listed on the ballot. Goggins, a former ward leader, suggested the party was not ready “to support a minority candidate.”

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, sees a bleak future for the party in Philadelphia.

“At this point, it’s hard to see a path to relevancy for the Philly GOP,” he said. “The national party brand among younger, diverse urban voters is toxic, so how do you build momentum, especially when third-party and independent candidates are offering alternatives to voters not enamored with the Democratic option?”

The Republican Party here has faced a decade of infighting that continued through Election Day. Billy Ciancaglini, the party’s eventual mayoral nominee, saw it play out in his campaign.

“They need to get all hands on deck and everyone pointed in the right direction,” he said Wednesday. “They don’t have that right now. It’s like a ship with several people on board trying to poke holes in the bottom. That’s not good.”

Meehan, in his letter to ward leaders, knocked the Democratic incumbent mayor, Jim Kenney, as “well funded” but “likability challenged.”

Kenney on Wednesday dismissed Ciancaglini as a “far right-wing troll” while proclaiming his love for Republican colleagues in City Hall and residents in the city. Kenney ignored Ciancaglini during the campaign, refusing to give him a platform in debates or other events.

He took four out of every five votes in the city, an effortless win since he didn’t bother to campaign.

The local Republican strife also seeped through the party’s efforts to retain the two at-large Council seats set aside for members who are not part of the majority party. The Republicans had five candidates seeking those two seats, including incumbents David Oh and Al Taubenberger.

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Meehan lamented the “every man for himself” quality of that race, in which Republicans essentially run a second primary that usually turns combative as they compete for small pockets of GOP voters in places like Northeast and South Philadelphia.

Oh, who tends to have broader support across the city, managed to secure his seat. But Taubenberger was ousted by Kendra Brooks, a Working Families Party candidate who aimed her well-resourced campaign at the Republican seats.

Sam Katz, the last Republican to run competitive races citywide, said the party needs to model its efforts more on campaigns like those run by Oh and State Rep. Martina White, who in 2015 became the first Republican to win an open state House seat in the city in 25 years.

“You have to build an election operation around something and someone you can believe in,” said Katz, who came close in mayor’s races in 1999 and 2003 but is no longer registered as a Republican. “That is generally not what the Republican Party has done.”

In White, Katz sees a future — a young conservative who puts in the door-to-door effort at retail politics in her Northeast Philadelphia district. A “loyal opposition” needs a clear agenda with committed participants and a message that makes sense, he said.

Also, it needs a cohesion that puts an end to infighting.

“We’re at rock bottom,” Katz said. “The most energy has been in that fight, not to establish an agenda for the future of the city."

Staff writer Allison Steele contributed to this article.