It’s hard to be a Republican in Philadelphia.
The city’s voters haven’t elected one to lead the city since the Eisenhower administration. In the last presidential election, 81 percent of voters picked the Democrat—Joe Biden—over the Republican, Donald Trump, in the highest-turnout election there in nearly four decades. And at this year’s start, just two Republicans served on Philadelphia’s 17-seat city council.
Which made it all the more stunning when one of those Republicans, David Oh, left his seat of more than a decade earlier this year to mount a longshot bid for mayor.
Oh—a lifelong resident of the city—isn’t your typical Republican. The three-term city councilman is not only the first Asian-American Republican elected to public office in the city, he’s also the Philly’s first Asian-American. In a party obsessed with culture wars on the national stage, Oh has generally kept his issues—good jobs, fight crime, fix the schools—focused on the city he seeks to lead.
But in a place where the previous two Republicans lost their mayoral bids by well over 50 points, Oh shares a lot in common with his fellow GOP members: nobody really seems to listen to him.
According to the Philadelphia Citizen, a local news non-profit, some of Oh’s most significant bills as a member of city council—an audit of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, lower taxes, softening COVID-19 restrictions—all went without a vote from the rest of the body.
His final bill as a councilman, an effort to implement new police training requirements, was soundly rejected, largely because people on the council did not like language in the bill acknowledging the city’s rising crime rates, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But in a city with languishing voter turnout rates, Oh tells Newsweek he believes there are plenty of voters who feel ignored as well.
“Part of the problem in Philadelphia is that our candidates focus on a very small portion of the Democratic voter. The race is over in the primary and they think they’re done,” he told Newsweek in an interview. “Then when they serve, they try to try to do the things that their voter base wants, but their voter base is not the whole set. And I think that’s where a problem develops. When you campaign to a small group of people, you win, and you cater to them, you’re not catering to the the entire population.”
As Democrats compete for a limited pool of votes to secure their party’s nomination in a highly competitive six-way primary election next week, Oh has been focusing on ethnic communities he says have been long neglected by the city’s progressive politicians and who have never been engaged by the local Republican Party.
On Sunday, Oh’s campaign met with leaders of Philadelphia’s Kyrgyzstani American community—just days after prior meetings with the city’s Ahiskan Turkish American community. He’s also spent a significant share of time targeting Hispanic and African-American communities in the city, intently focused on issues like gentrification and the city’s response to its persistent crime rates. Oh, a former assistant district attorney in the city, was once stabbed during an attempted robbery in 2017, the Inquirer reported. The suspect was later acquitted.
Still, it’s a long shot. While Billy Ciancaglini, the last Republican to run for mayor, managed to win nine wards on the city’s outer fringes in the last election over concerns like supervised heroin injection sites and crime, he was ultimately blown out by 60 points in his race against outgoing mayor Jim Kenney. Prior to that, controversial District Attorney Larry Krasner dominated his Republican challenger by a similarly large margin, securing 70 percent of the vote even as he faced growing scrutiny over the efficacy of his office’s liberal sentencing and prosecutorial reforms.
But there is potential in the electorate: even as Democrats are winning elections in landslides there, fewer people are showing up to vote for them.
A Philadelphia Inquirer analysis of voter data in 2022 showed Philadelphia’s vote count dropped 33 percent from 2020, outpacing any other county and nearly a dozen points higher than the state average. That result capped off a two-decade trend dating back to 2000, when Philadelphia’s overall voter turnout had declined significantly faster than anywhere else in the state. And the groups that felt it most, according to the analysis, were the city’s communities of color.
According to the piece, precinct-level results from the 2022 election showed Philadelphia’s turnout decline was sharp in Black neighborhoods as well as Latino ones, which had the steepest declines in votes cast. This was largely because they were ignored, a survey found. According to a 2022 poll of 300 Latino voters by Unidos US—a Latino civil rights organization—just 30 percent were contacted by Democrats ahead of the election, compared with 51 percent who were not contacted by either party.
And while a vast majority of the respondents said Democrats best-supported their values, many of the issues they ranked as their top priorities—such as inflation (47 percent ranked it as a top-three priority), crime and gun violence (45 percent), and the economy (27 percent)—ranked well above issues like police reform and COVID-19, which were top-ranking issues for just 10 percent of all surveyed voters.
This is where Oh feels Democrats are most vulnerable.
While he is significantly outspent—campaign finance data shows Oh’s war chest in the low six figures, while several of the leading Democrats have fundraised in the millions—the Democratic field is still bitterly divided, with polling showing the race in a five-way tie approaching primary election day, the Inquirer reported. Of those numbers, a large share of the electorate (anywhere between 20 and 30 percent, according to various polls) remained undecided, indicating to Oh that a large share of the Democratic base remained unhappy with their options. Meanwhile, just 25 percent of the city’s registered Republicans actually show up to vote on average, Oh said, leaving only room to grow.