Amid concerns about his party’s direction locally and across the state, D. Raja is stepping down as the chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.
In a statement, he called his time leading the committee “an honor and a privilege. … I’ve offered a vision of servant leadership to build our party and put our Republican Party principles into action. Despite a challenging environment, I believe our efforts and positive results will speak for themselves."
While his term as county chair is not scheduled to expire until next year, Raja plans to step down June 29, or sooner if new leadership can be found. “I will give the party as much time as they need to find a new leader," he told WESA on Friday morning. "I want to give [my successor] time to prepare for the 2020 presidential election.”
By Friday afternoon there was already jockeying over who would replace Raja as chair. Committeepeople will ultimately hold an election to fill out Raja's term, but one name being bandied about as a contender is Republican "at-large" county council member Sam DeMarco. DeMarco is a fixture at GOP gatherings and the highest-ranking Republican currently in county government. He told WESA Friday that he intended to seek the position.
The move will come as welcome news to some of Raja’s Republican critics, who had become increasingly restless as Raja ran in, and lost, a special election in the 37th state Senate District earlier this year. That loss and the victory of Democrat Lindsey Williams north of Pittsburgh last year, means the county has no Republican serving in the state Senate. Nor, after the special election win of Democrat Conor Lamb last year, do they have a seat in Congress.
“The Democrats are going hard left,” said Mary Ann Meloy, a longtime GOP party activist. “This has always been a moderate county, and the Democrats going hard left is an opportunity for Republicans, but we haven’t been able to take advantage of it. The only candidate he's ever recruited to run is himself.”
GOP sources say those concerns were aired at a gathering of party leaders and state House members including House Speaker Mike Turzai held Wednesday morning, when leaders challenged Raja's track record on issues like fundraising and candidate recruitment. At the time, sources said, Raja indicated a desire to remain as chair until his term ended, though he said he would not run for reelection.
On Friday, Raja characterized the meeting not as a referendum on his own performance but as part of a statewide discussion of Republican fortunes after bruising 2018 elections statewide.
“I think there are concerns across the state: We’re losing seats in the suburbs,” he said. And locally, he said, “When you’re losing two state Senate seats, the question is always if you could have won.”
Some Republican critics said Raja should have withdrawn and allowed the party to choose another candidate in the race, both because a party chair should not seek office himself, and because Raja had lost a race for the same seat in 2012. Some hoped their champion would be Devlin Robinson, a veteran of military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But state party leaders rallied to Raja’s cause early, and Raja said Robinson’s candidacy would have faced challenges too. With state party coffers at a low ebb, Raja financed much of his own campaign. By contrast, he asked, “Where would he have had the money?”
Raja points to a number of accomplishments as party leader. He touted a growth in Republican party registration in the county, and said the county committee now has $70,000 in the bank. And while the state Senate losses hurt, he noted that the party held onto a number of open state House races last year -- in largely suburban areas -- that Democrats had hoped to flip.
But anxiety is high in Pennsylvania, which is critical to President Donald Trump's reelection prospects. And western Pennsylvania is largely seen as key to GOP hopes next year. Allegheny County, which boasts the largest total number of Republicans statewide, could be a linchpin to a Trump win.
And critics note that when Allegheny County Republicans who went to the polls on Tuesday, they did not have a candidate’s name before them in races for county treasurer, district attorney, or county controller – a race whose Democratic incumbent, Chelsa Wagner, is facing charges related to an altercation with Detroit police. (The Republican listed as a candidate for county executive, Matt Drozd, is a former county councilor whose campaign has consisted almost entirely of lawn signs, which, according to campaign finance reports, were left over from previous campaigns.)
The picture was little better down-ballot: While Democrats appear ready to challenge two Republican county council incumbents, Republicans put up no challengers in districts held by incumbents
“So many people see the county party as useless,” says Anissa Coury, who chairs a Young Republicans group. “They aren’t organized enough to help and people just overlook them. I have no ill will toward Raja: It’s strictly performance based, and he hasn’t shown up.”
Raja noted that the party did assist two candidates in write-in campaigns. Mt. Washington resident Brooke Nadonley hopes to challenge Wagner, while Mike Freedman is seeking to win a spot on the November ballot to challenge Allegheny County District 6 councilor John Palmiere. The party may also field a write-in challenger for District Attorney, though it will be a few weeks before write-in results are tabulated.
Republicans have long faced challenges with recruiting candidates in heavily Democratic Allegheny County. The party didn’t mount a challenge to any of the four countywide races in 2015, when the chair was Jim Roddey, nor in 2007. In 2011, it did have candidates in three out of the four races – including Raja himself, who challenged Rich Fitzgerald for the county executive spot.
None of those race were particularly close, but Raja says “I was the one driving” the fact that the party had a slate of candidates at all.
Even so, state Rep. Natalie Mihalek said the GOP in Allegheny was stagnating. "We've been stalled for awhile, even as other counties have been growing. So it's about finding a way to energize our voters. I think change is a good thing." Ordinarily Republicans change their leadership after voting for new committeemembers in the presidential primary -- which means leadership often changes amidst a pitched election. Mihalek said, "I commend Raja for having the foresight to change gears before we're in the middle of an election, to let us make the transition now."
Raja would likely have likely faced mounting pressure to leave if he remained. Within Republican circles there was talk of taking their concerns more public, perhaps by circulating an open letter calling on Raja to step down.
But in a statement announcing his decision, other county committee leaders hailed Raja as a “dynamic leader … He is honest, compassionate, and inclusive — the leadership qualities we needed to build the party. We feel fortunate to have served alongside a man who set high expectations for our team and delivered extraordinary results.”