D.C. Council member David A. Catania attends a meet-and-greet hosted by Robert Goodrich in Washington on May 14. Catania, an independent, is hoping to lure Democrats in an effort to win the city's mayoral race. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

David A. Catania’s campaign manager giddily tracked the shipment for days and couldn’t help himself when it finally arrived. He ripped open a cardboard box and tweeted a picture of three simple words on a sky-blue yard sign revealing exactly how Catania plans to win the D.C. mayor’s race:

“Democrats for David!”

In a city that has elected only Democrats to the top job, the Republican-turned-independent has adopted an obvious strategy to make history: persuade Democrats to choose him. With 75 percent of the city’s voters registered as Democrats, he simply has no other path to victory.

Catania’s gambit involves more than cloaking himself in a blue banner. He will try to convince Democrats across the city, from affluent liberal fundraisers in Northwest Washington to the working-class party faithful across the Anacostia River, that his positions are in line with theirs — and more substantive than those of his opponent, Democratic nominee and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser.

Six months before voters go to the polls, he has already started putting his plan into action. Any sign of success could turn this year’s mayoral contest into the most competitive general election in D.C. history.

Lawn signs and bumper stickers recently delivered to the headquarters of David Catania contain three words that hold al the hope for the campaign's victory in the Nov. 4, 2014 D.C. mayoral election: "Democrats for David" (Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post)
‘Look at my record’

Catania, a five-term at-large council member, hopes to elevate the contest with Bowser (Ward 4) into a war of ideas over the future of the District’s classrooms, health care, homelessness problem and public-works backlog.

But his adoption of the “Democrats for David!” slogan represents a more pragmatic calculation: That a race about party affiliation is unwinnable for anyone but a Democrat and that he must try to be welcomed by the majority and not campaign from the outside. That’s a particular challenge for this ultimate outsider: white, gay, formerly Republican.

With politically minded Washingtonians just tuning into whether he can pull it off, a battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of D.C. Democrats is playing out nightly before surprisingly packed living rooms and backyard patios of the city’s suddenly biparty-curious.

Down a slope from Washington National Cathedral, in a home full of 35 well-heeled Democratic lobbyists, lawyers and Upper Northwest parents — many of whom voted for Bowser in last month’s primary — Catania on a recent night recounted his list of legislative accomplishments: a bailout of a troubled Southeast hospital, legalized same-sex marriage and medical marijuana. And his latest: a bill he pushed through for the District’s single-largest new spending program in recent memory: $20 million a year for free college tuition to help persuade poor and middle-class students to stay in high school through graduation.

“I grew up in Kansas. . . . Sometimes, it takes us awhile to come to our senses,” Catania says, addressing the elephant before anyone asks. “The Republican Party that I grew up with disappeared a long time ago. As far as being an independent, it’s a suit that really fits. I joke that I’ve been in one bad marriage and I’m not about to jump into another.”

At every gathering, Catania assumes that most faces in the crowd are Democrats and acknowledges the leap he’s asking them to take: “I hope people will look at my record and my values more than my label.”

The signs, he says, were printed “by popular demand.”

“We have an extraordinary number of individuals who are Democrats, who are supporting my campaign — and they are proud of both. They are proud of being Democrats, and proud of supporting me.”

Trying to break the bloc

Not all Democrats are buying it.

“Dreamin’, ” is how Anita Bonds, chairwoman of the D.C. Democratic Party and an at-large council member, described Catania’s strategy. “We’re the ones who are going to make a case for every Republican and independent . . . not the other way around.”

And Catania will have to contend with a stream of high-profile Democrats who are certain to endorse Bowser should Catania emerge as a real threat.

Even Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who has barely spoken to Bowser since she beat him in last month’s primary, said as much. “I refuse to . . . allow somebody who is not a Democrat to dictate what will happen in terms of Democratic values for our children,” Gray said.

What Catania is attempting is not unprecedented. “Democrats for Agnew” signs dotted Maryland in 1966, bringing Republican Spiro Agnew to power as governor in a heavily Democratic state. In New York, Michael Bloomberg became mayor in a liberal bastion first as a Republican and then an independent.

But in the District’s still-young, 40-year experiment with mayoral elections, there’s no playbook for how to fracture the city’s dominant party. The closest anyone came was perennial Republican candidate Carol Schwartz, who in 1994 lost to Marion Barry by 14 percentage points — a narrow margin by D.C. standards largely attributed to Barry’s conviction for possession of cocaine.

Chuck Thies, who was Gray’s campaign manager, said he would have focused on Catania’s Republican roots and status as a political outsider had Gray won the primary. “There’s no reason that couldn’t be employed somewhat effectively,” Thies said.

But Bowser’s strategy has been to refuse to engage Catania head-on — and to decline joint appearances and debates that could raise his stature as a legitimate candidate. Instead, she has assumed the role of mayor-in-waiting.

“I don’t think anything about David — you all think about David much more than I do,” she said recently when asked about Catania’s emerging effort to win over Democrats. “I think the bigger question is to see how he’s won all these years. . . . He’s never really had to win against anybody.”

Catania beat a prominent Democrat in a special election in 1997 to join the council. Since then, he has been reelected repeatedly to one of two council seats set aside under the city’s charter for candidates who are not from the majority party. He was a Republican when he first beat a Democrat. After he split with the GOP a decade ago, he ran as an independent and won repeatedly.

Each time, Democrats have helped. In his most recent election, in 2010, Catania won with more than 57,000 votes, and at least three in four were registered Democrats.

Still, there is no question Catania would need tens of thousands more Democrats to turn his way to eclipse Bowser. Gray won in November 2010 with almost 98,000 votes and 74 percent of general-election ballots. Adrian M. Fenty won in 2006 with 106,000 votes and 88 percent.

A driving issue

Inside Catania’s sparse campaign headquarters along Dupont Circle, the blueprint for victory goes roughly like this: He will need the support of better than a third of all D.C. Democrats who vote Nov. 4.

And it must come from both ends of the city’s Democratic Party spectrum: from the white liberal progressives torn last month between Bowser and council member Tommy Wells (Ward 6), and from the African American strongholds east of the Anacostia that tilted heavily for Gray.

Already hoarse from near-nightly appearances, Catania is aggressively pursuing both. And if there is a single reason he may make inroads, it is that for more than a year, he has held a bully pulpit on the issue most dear to thousands of the city’s most motivated voters: parents of public school children.

Catania has spent the equivalent of seven full weeks visiting more than 130 public schools since becoming chairman of the council’s Education Committee.

He appeared at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7 the night in late March when he announced he was running.

“That’s when I decided for sure that I was going to vote for him,” said Sirraya Gant, the school’s PTA president. Gant said she’d seen Catania up to his elbows in budget books so many times that there’s no question he cares deeply about city schools.

Catania visited the city’s poorest wards twice last week, speaking to community groups while an aide passed out fliers depicting Bowser as a puppet with strings controlled by aides to Fenty, who is still seen there as unfairly catering to the city’s affluent newcomers.

In the whiter, wealthier wards that propelled Bowser to victory, Catania’s message is just as tough. In gatherings over the past two weeks, he has challenged listeners to find a single original piece of legislation she’s developed in seven years on the council. And he has seized on a stumble by Bowser in her first days after the primary win regarding a controversial plan announced by Gray to redraw school boundaries.

Bowser issued a statement that many parents read to mean she supported divvying up more student slots at schools by lottery. She issued a second statement clarifying that she thought every student should have a right to a neighborhood school.

Catania said his opponent flip-flopped and might not have understood the mayor’s policy.

In the campaign office, beside a room with a phone for fundraising and a “Tommy Wells Donors” binder, there’s a stack of a second set of lawn signs set to head out the door behind “Democrats for David!”:

“Public School Parents for David.”