D.C. Council election results 2010: The future of the GOP

If the D.C. Republican Party was ever going to pull off a surprise victory in a D.C. Council ward race, this seemed like the year to do it.

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Carol Schwartz and Adrian Fenty
There hasn't been a Republican on the D.C. Council since Carol Schwartz, pictured here with Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost in 2008. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

Long story short

Will the D.C. GOP ever win a D.C. Council seat again?

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Why? First, the bigger picture. Though the District doesn’t routinely welcome national political trends, it shares at least some of the problems — sluggish economy, joblessness — with places that vaulted Democratic incumbents from their congressional seats on Tuesday night.

And then the smaller picture. The city’s GOP cell this year fielded a more energetic crop of candidates for council. So much so that two of them — Dave Hedgepeth in Ward 3 and Tim Day in Ward 5 — managed to garner Washington Post endorsements, a feat that surprised even party insiders.

Hedgepeth, in particular, appeared well positioned to stage an upset. He was running against incumbent Democrat Mary Cheh, who this fall looked out of step with her own constituents. In the all-important Sept. 14 mayoral primary, Cheh had stuck her neck out by endorsing now-Mayor-elect Vincent Gray, a baffling move in a ward enamored of Mayor Adrian Fenty and former public schools commissioner Michelle Rhee. Toss in two other factors: Ward 3 is home to the largest number of registered Republicans in the city and Cheh had a low-profile summer after sailing through the Democratic primary unopposed.

Day’s prospects also had a narrative behind them. He was facing an incumbent who is both under scrutiny for possible financial tomfoolery and appears set to contend for the at-large spot soon to be vacated by Kwame Brown, who will become council chairman in January. Day at least seemed a good bet for a strong showing.

But neither of those outcomes came to pass. Hedgepeth pulled in a decent 34 percent of Ward 3 voters, but still lost handily to Cheh’s 65 percent. And Day’s results were almost shockingly bad: Less than 6 percent, earning fewer votes even than famously erratic former ANC commissioner Kathy Henderson, who was running as an independent. Incumbent Democrat Harry Thomas, Jr. was re-elected with a whopping 84 percent of the vote. Lesson: Ward 5 isn’t yet ready for a progressive Republican black gay man pitted against a glad-handing Democratic black straight man with a family legacy in local politics.

That the District of Columbia votes Democratic more than eight-to-one isn’t going to change anytime soon. But it was only six years ago that there were two sitting Republicans on the D.C. Council, and only two that there was one. With Tuesday’s election results, the question now becomes, when, if ever, might there be another?

“In a way, it was actually helpful to not have someone on the council for a while, because we could become our own person,” muses D.C. Republican Committee Chairman Robert Kabel, who is standing in the middle of a downtown hotel suite shortly after learning that none of his party’s candidates had managed to beat the odds in their council races this year. “We didn’t have to check with anyone” when the committee wanted to put itself out there on a particular issue, he explains, referring in a not even remotely veiled way to Carol Schwartz, D.C.’s longtime Republican Queen. Schwartz served for 16 years as an at-large member of the council before losing to upstart Patrick Mara in the Republican primary in 2008, and as the only vaguely right-leaning councilmember for a significant stretch of time, was also her party’s de facto leader. “Carol was ... all about Carol,” Kabel puts it.

Schwartz’s political career was undeniably a force of her own making. She was never really elected because she was a Republican; she was elected because she was Carol, a charismatic Texan who won over D.C. liberals with her pragmatic positions. Even so, Schwartz never managed to win a mayoral election, despite four attempts. She may have been popular, but she also benefited from the District’s odd political rule that sets aside two of the four at-large seats for the non-majority party---i.e., non-Democrats.

No Republican challenged either of the incumbent at-large members, Democrat Phil Mendelson and former Republican-turned-independent David Catania, who were up for re-election this time around. The party won’t repeat that same mistake in an upcoming special election, likely to be held in early May, to fill the seat left by chairman-to-be Brown.

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