Correction: Earlier versions of this story failed to mention two Democratic challengers to incumbent District 2 County Council member Craig Rice (D). They are Tiquia Bennett and Tony Puca.
In an election cycle defined by the debut of term limits and public financing, dozens of candidates in liberal Montgomery see impending turnover on the County Council as their opportunity to enter local politics.
Yes, a few Republicans, too.
It’s been 15 years since the last Republican was elected to the County Council in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction. With four term-limited lawmakers vacating their seats, a new opportunity to receive matching funds for small-dollar campaign contributions and a popular Republican governor in Annapolis, party members say 2018 may be the best chance in a while to disrupt the Democrats’ monolithic grip.
But Montgomery is still Montgomery, a liberal stronghold where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1. Democratic candidates gleefully describe a “Trump hangover” in a jurisdiction where more than three-quarters voted for Hillary Clinton.
And Democrats are lining up to run, with more than two dozen in the race for four at-large council seats three months before the filing deadline. Another dozen or so are running for district county seats or county executive.
In contrast, just four Republicans so far have filed candidacy papers. They are grimly aware of the odds they face.
“It’s not like the lottery, but it’s difficult,” said Ed Amatetti, a first-time candidate running as a Republican for the District 2 seat. He will compete for the nomination with consultant Tom Ferleman, with the winner facing the winner of a Democratic primary that includes incumbent Craig Rice (D) and two challengers.
Chevy Chase resident Richard Banach is running in District 1. Robin Ficker, a former state delegate who has sought office more than a dozen times, is the only Republican candidate so far in the race for county executive.
The challenge of recruiting Republican candidates has become an issue within local party leadership.
Dick Jurgena, who took over as chair of the Montgomery County Republican Party committee in February — is being challenged for the post by Mark Uncapher, who was chairman from 2008 to 2013 and has served as treasurer for the past four years.
The election among Montgomery’s central committee members takes place later this month.
Uncapher said he is frustrated with the direction of the county party leading up to an election year and believes Jurgena has not focused enough on drafting local candidates and precinct chairs — “the nuts and bolts of the party.”
“We’ve got three months left before the filing deadline,” Uncapher said. “There are quite a few races in which a Republican has not filed yet.”
Jurgena said the party was “looking to fill all of those positions with viable candidates that feel they can win.”
But he conceded progress was moving “to be honest, a little slowly.”
Simply convincing candidates to run is challenge enough. Amatetti and Ficker agreed that District 2 — covering the relatively rural areas of Germantown, Clarksburg and Damascus — is the most vulnerable seat for Democrats, although facing an incumbent brings its own set of challenges.
Campaigning countywide for an at-large seat, they said, would be too expensive, with little chance of winning in a jurisdiction of nearly 1 million people that conservatives mock as “The People’s Republic of Montgomery County.”
“The odds are much better in a smaller district, and even that’s tough,” said Ficker, who has run for office at the local, state and federal level since the 1970s but won only once, when he ran for state legislature in 1978.
Connie Morella, a Republican who represented much of Montgomery County in Congress from 1987 to 2003, said challenges with fundraising and other issues are “particularly acute” for Republicans in this liberal part of the state.
The antidote, she said, is county leadership that “says, ‘Hey, you run and we’re going to give you these resources. We’re going to help you.’ ”
“[Republicans] look around and it’s empty, there’s nobody in the room,” Morella said.
She said the party should do all it can to break the Democratic monopoly, arguing that single-party government isolates politicians and voters from those with different political views.
For now, GOP loyalists say, progress might best be measured seat by seat — not just on the council but also in Congress, where at least four Republicans and five Democrats are vying to succeed outgoing Rep. John Delaney (D) in the 6th district, which includes parts of Montgomery and all of western Maryland.
“If I win, that will change some tone,” said Amie Hoeber, who lives in Potomac and is one of the GOP congressional candidates. “If [Amatetti] or [Ferleman] wins in council District 2, it would change some tone . . . If we can just pick up a couple of wins, it will change the tone of the whole thing.”