District Republicans expressed grave concerns Wednesday about the future of their party in local elections, one day after GOP candidate Patrick Mara finished third in a low-turnout special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat.

The results, including the election of incumbent Anita Bonds (D), immediately sparked a fierce intraparty debate as GOP leaders confronted their inability to win races even as the city grows more diverse.

About a half-hour before polls closed Tuesday, D.C. Republican Party Chairman Ron Phillips said in a tweet that “DC Republican Party went all in” as they sought a Mara victory.

But as precinct tallies trickled in, it became apparent to Mara and GOP leaders that they had not only lost to Bonds but also lagged behind first-time candidate Elissa Silverman, who campaigned as a “progressive” Democrat.

On Wednesday morning, Phillips sent an e-mail to GOP supporters calling the election “probably the worst political night of my life.”

Coverage of the D.C. Council special election.

“There is just no way we can describe the total collapse of this campaign — well, at least for now,” Phillips wrote, promising to conduct a full postmortem of the returns to “learn from this disappointment.”

According to unofficial returns, Mara received 23 percent of the vote, compared with Silverman’s 27 percent and Bonds’s 32 percent. Absentee and provisional ballots will be counted in the coming days.

The Mara campaign strongly disputed the idea that it had “collapsed” and said the party had done little to help matters.

“Ron is not progressive GOP,” said Mara campaign manager Dan Hoicowitz, referring to Mara’s efforts to present himself as a moderate on social issues. “Ron sees the world through a partisan lens. He’s not able to reach across party lines.”

Shortly before the election, Hoicowitz said, Phillips unsuccessfully pressured Mara to sign a National Rifle Association pledge — a move that might have alienated swaths of voters in the District, which has strict gun-control laws.

Phillips acknowledged passing an NRA questionnaire on to the campaign but said it was a “great exaggeration” to say that he asked Mara to sign a pledge. “I don’t think I was pressuring Pat,” he said.

Phillips said Mara, 38, a business consultant who represents Ward 1 on the State Board of Education, was a great candidate for the party. But he said “tactical and structural problems” plagued Mara’s campaign: “Clearly something went wrong.”

Compounding the disappointment for the GOP, Mara fell far short even though political observers think that at least half of those voting Tuesday were white. About 40 percent more votes were cast in the four majority-white wards Tuesday than in the four majority-black wards, according to unofficial tallies.

National polling indicates that white voters and those with higher incomes are more likely to favor the Republican Party. In 2012, Washington Post-ABC News national polls found that among whites, 31  percent identify as Republicans and 25 percent identify as Democrats. Fifty-three percent of non-whites identify as Democrats vs. 8 percent as Republicans.

Democratic pollster Ronald Lester said the District’s newer residents are expected to play a major role in next year’s mayoral race. But Lester cautioned that those residents are shying away from the GOP at least as much as longtime D.C. residents.

According to D.C. Board of Elections records, 6.3 percent of city voters are aligned with the GOP, down from about 7 percent in 2008.

“Democratic partisanship has increased in the age of Obama,” said Lester, who’s been polling city races since the 1980s.

Mara declined to comment Wednesday, but the strain of his loss within the GOP was evident.

Phillips, a Florida native who became D.C. party chairman last year, pinned part of the blame on a pro-Mara, independent political action committee that was chaired by a former local party executive director. The D.C. Action Fund raised at least $36,000 to support Mara and attack his opponents.

Phillips suggested that the PAC was largely ineffective. “Their efforts worked against the D.C. Republican Party and also sought to take money away from the D.C. GOP,” Phillips wrote. “It is bad enough to fight the Democrats . . . but to fight fellow Republicans is ridiculous.”

But Hoicowitz questioned the party’s efforts on behalf of Mara. “He’s not able to raise any money,” Hoicowitz said of Phillips. “People that normally raise money for the party won’t give money to him.”

Bob Kabel, a former local party chairman who now serves as a Republican National Committee member, agreed with Lester that President Obama’s election has made life more difficult for the local GOP. “He’s a great pride to the city Democrats, so that gives them an additional rallying point,” he said.

But Kabel said GOP candidates in the District also struggle to get Republicans to turn out for city elections, which he thinks may have contributed to Mara’s loss.

Phillips planned to send absentee ballot applications to Republican households. With absentee ballots still uncounted, it is unclear whether the gambit helped.

Regardless of what the final numbers show, Phillips said, Republicans will be back in the 2014 city races.

“The Republican Party is not dead,” he said. “We are going to rebuild from this, and we’re going to be a better party.”

Capital Insight polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.