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Election Day: All Eyes on Montco

By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor

From left to right: Richards, Shapiro, Pat Murphy, Bob Casey

It’s election day, and the eyes of political operatives around the state are fixed on Montgomery County.

In its entire history, Montco has never elected a majority-Democratic Board of Commissioners. Party operatives think this is their year.

Likewise Republicans, who early in the race thought that demographic trends, Democratic fundraising and party in-fighting had caught them in a perfect storm, think the GOP team might just pull off a win today.

Political observers across the state agree: no race portends more about 2012 environment than this race.

In the United Food and Commercial Workers local 1776 hall on Saturday morning, Sen. Bob Casey – the de facto leader of Pa. Democrats – urged volunteers and activists on in their final get out the vote (GOTV) push.

“This county is very well positioned for the future. What’s missing right now is that kind of teamwork, that kind of working together to create jobs, to build bridges,” Casey said. “Josh and Leslie are prepared like few other candidates I’ve seen running for this vitally important position.”

State Rep. Josh Shapiro of Abington and running mate Leslie Richards, Whitemarsh Township Supervisor, have based their campaign largely on ground game. The pair said they had the plan in place to contact 100,000 voters on Saturday alone – and re-touch those voters an additional four to five times between then and today.

As a point of reference, the 2007 race saw a turnout of about 167,000 voters.

“We’ve been building for this weekend the entire campaign,” said Shapiro. “We’ve got hundreds of volunteers in the field. We’ve got volunteers making phone calls, and we’re very, very confident that we’re going to communicate not once, not twice, but multiple times with our voters by election day.”

There has been little daylight between Shapiro and Richards – they have been on message the entire campaign.

The county is a high priority for Democrats. In addition to Casey, Superior Court candidate David Wecht was on hand Saturday morning, as were Attorney General hopeful Pat Murphy and Pa. Dems Executive Director Kevin Washo.

Despite their historical supremacy, the Republicans in the race – incumbent Commissioner Bruce Castor and Lower Merion Township Supervisor Jenny Brown – have cause to feel like underdogs. Shapiro began the race with nearly $1 million in his campaign account. And while the GOP has nominally held the majority in the courthouse, in fact the center-left coalition of Republican Commissioner Jim Matthews and Democratic Commissioner Joe Hoeffel has governed the county since 2007.

The GOPers have executed a broad field plan, but their trump card appears to be a large, last-minute ad buy. Castor says the campaign had raised about $500,000 in the past two weeks, and a source with knowledge of the buy said they put $300,000 on broadcast television starting Saturday.

Several of the Philadelphia-area broadcast networks would not divulge campaign spending information over the telephone, but PoliticsPA was able to confirm a significant purchase on KYW, CBS 3 (which aired the LSU-Alabama game on Saturday night and the Jets-Bills game on Sunday).

In total, the Republicans have spent about $178,000 on CBS 3 including $41,000 over the last three days. The Democratic team has spent $97,000 over the course of the campaign and $29,500 in the past three days. Each of the Democrats’ spending figures includes a $10,000 addition made Monday morning.

The campaign has been highly charged and very heated, especially in the past few days. Both sides say they have a plan while their opponents don’t.

Shapiro tells the story of county government in a state of dysfunction – led by someone with a combative reputation. Castor talks about a big-spending Harrisburg politician who voters can’t trust with their tax dollars.

The Republican message is textbook: less spending, lower taxes. Their attacks on the Democrats are similarly standard: Shapiro and Richards will raise your taxes. The Democrats’ positive message matches: zero-based budgeting, hold the line on taxes. Their hits on the Republicans, however, are more nuanced: Bruce Castor’s reputation as being very difficult to get along with, and Jenny Brown’s connection to the Tea Party.

The Democrats’ first line of attack, that Castor has a prickly personality, is fairly well grounded. He has long played a part in the factionalization of the courthouse and the Montco GOP. Some accounts of the deal imply that Castor drove Matthews to his deal with Hoeffel.

That’s why the Dems’ slogan – visible on campaign lit, TV ads and even billboards – is, “A team that will work together for a change.”

The Democrats’ second attack, about Jenny Brown’s Tea Party connection, is one of the more interesting aspects of the campaign. Democrats have blasted Brown for being the only candidate to meet with the Tea Party (she wasn’t, technically), and for sharing their values. That the Dems’ polling would show that the TP is an effective hit on Brown is an illustration of the moderate reality of southeast Pa. politics.

Brown told PoliticsPA that to the degree that limited spending, limited government and increased accountability are Tea Party values, she does share them. “I think so do most people,” she said.

Castor says voters won’t have to worry about bickering any more – so long as he and Brown win a majority today.

“It was just me against everyone else,” said Castor of his past four years shut out of county government. “I am very difficult to get along with people who are doing things that are unethical, illegal and immoral, and I will never change.”

At a Q&A with a bipartisan group of 50 residents of the Valley Forge Towers on Friday night, Brown and Castor showed every sign of running mates in sync. They smiled, joked, laughed, boasted about each other’s accomplishments and appeared genuinely at ease. They said they hadn’t discussed who which of them would be the Chairperson should they both be elected.

Operatives on both sides share competing tidbits of campaign intel. One Dem source says Brown is hoarding money in her individual campaign account; a Republican source accused Shapiro of doing the same. Both sides spreading rumors that fractures are visible on the opposing team. In paid media, both campaigns have been mostly negative.

But most exciting for political observers: both sides are convinced of imminent victory.

The impact of the attacks – and the generally negative tenor of the campaign – will be apparent after polls close at 8pm tonight.

Left, Castor and Brown share a post-Q&A hug; Right, Shapiro and Richards share a joke during Saturday's rally

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