Montgomery Republicans running hard in Democratic county

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 8:48 PM

Howard Denis stood at the front of a Chevy Chase meeting room and held up a $50 bill.

He was stumping for Rob Vricella, a Republican running for Denis's former seat on the Montgomery County Council, and his offer of a campaign contribution came with a string attached.

"It's conditional on 10 people here giving you 50 bucks," Denis said, telling the crowd that Vricella needed to raise "thousands of dollars each week to provide fuel for the campaign bus."

In addition to the cash, Denis gave the GOP aspirant some encouraging words - and a new moniker: "Rob 'V for Victory' Vricella."

"It can be done," Denis said. "This district is one of the competitive districts."

Douglas E. Rosenfeld, the Republican challenging County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), called out from the crowd of about 50 at the September event. "Howie, we're competitive countywide!" Rosenfeld said.

But despite broad gains expected across the country, Montgomery's Republicans are facing some unforgiving political arithmetic: Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one in the county.

While Vricella ended up getting Denis's donation, the District 1 candidate has struggled to raise money and spread his message of fiscal prudence, despite the county's ongoing budget crunch. Incumbent Democrat Roger Berliner has raised 14 times what Vricella has, and the two couldn't agree on a date for a debate.

"This district has never been held, before me, by a Democrat," Berliner said. "There's no question that a moderate Republican that is well known in the community would have posed a significant threat. That's not who I'm running against."

Vricella said the talk among the all-Democratic incumbents about stewardship of the county's $4.27 billion budget amounts to an election-year conversion. "There's no one challenging their orthodoxy," Vricella said. "All the Democrats, the progressives, are 'fiscal conservatives' now. Why do you want an imitation when you can have the real thing?"

Denis won the council seat in 2000 after a long stint as a state senator, but lost to Berliner in 2006. Some political observers in the county say that it would be a mistake to dismiss Republican long shots across the board, particularly in such a volatile political year. But they also expect Democrats to maintain a total, or near-total, hold on power in the county.

One place where Republicans say they have hopes of making a stand is in the sprawling upcounty district, where Democratic Council Member Mike Knapp's decision not to seek reelection left an open seat. District 2 covers much of northern and western Montgomery.

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