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D.C. GOP in Unfamiliar Territory: A Competitive Race

Washington, D.C., Republicans are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory: They’re being targeted for get-out-the-vote efforts in a competitive election in the nation’s capital.

And as the District votes in Tuesday’s special election for an at-large Council seat, Capitol Hill Republican staffers are being asked to vote for someone who used to be in their shoes: Patrick Mara, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education who once worked for the late Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I.

Since becoming chairman of the D.C. Republican Party late last year, Ron Phillips has been doing education and outreach among what he calls the “young professional” community of Capitol Hill.

And he’s already seeing results. He still needs to do a final analysis, he said, but in receiving requests for absentee ballots from D.C. Republican voters who didn’t want to bother getting to the polls on Election Day, “a huge number of them came out of Ward 6, and the areas surrounding Capitol Hill.”

“We’re trying to make an effort to tell them, ‘You live in D.C., you’re paying D.C. taxes, you might as well vote in D.C.,’” Phillips said. “And for a lot of staffers who are registered in the District, they are focused on their bosses, so they’re not following District politics very closely.”

To that end, some 10,000 registered Republican voters in Washington, D.C., answered their phones last week to be greeted by a familiar, if totally unexpected, voice.

“Hello, this is Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I am calling today in support of Patrick Mara, the only Republican candidate running in next Tuesday’s special election for D.C. Council.”

Because voter turnout tends to be small in special elections, Mara’s supporters know that every Republican vote in a sea of Democratically cast ballots counts, especially as they see their candidate’s chances for victory tantalizingly within reach.

Mara faces five candidates for the seat, including Democrat Anita Bonds, who was appointed to the seat on an interim basis after its previous occupant, Democratic Councilman Phil Mendelson, became council chairman. Part of the reason Mara has an opening is that Bonds might split many votes with three other Democrats, Elissa Silverman, Matt Frumin and Paul Zukerberg. A sixth candidate, Perry Redd, is running as a candidate of the D.C. Statehood Green Party.

Mara has faced scrutiny from D.C. campaign finance officials for reports that he agreed to raise money for a think tank from a previous campaign donor list of his in exchange for a fee.

Still, D.C. GOP officials are banking on Christie’s message resonating with D.C.’s base of moderate Republicans who might not otherwise bother going to the polls.

“He’s a moderate conservative Republican, and that really matches a lot of the profile of the Republican[s] in the District of Columbia, and Patrick Mara,” said Phillips, who helped orchestrate the endorsement calls.

GOP activists are also hoping Christie’s support will rouse the potentially powerful voting bloc of young Republican staffers, transplants who moved to the area to work for a lawmaker on Capitol Hill and don’t feel a desire to get involved in the local political process — yet.

Stephen Jackson, the chairman of the D.C. Young Republicans, said the influence of Republican congressional aides in the local political process could not be understated.

“We sent about 500 volunteers to 11 different states for the November election, because we saw where tough campaigns were and where our work would be recognized,” he explained. “Now we can go to Hill staffers and say, ‘Hey, this is where you can make a difference in your own backyard. You can change your voter registration and you can make a different right here.”

The narrative should sound familiar to someone like Mara, who moved to the District of Columbia in 1997 to work as an aide to Chafee. Mara then became a lobbyist and went on to serve on various D.C. public service boards. “When you first arrive in D.C., you know certain top-level things and that’s how you define the District,” Mara recently told CQ Roll Call. “When I purchased my home … 10 years ago, when I moved off the Hill, my awareness … increased quite a bit.”

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