Mark Uncapher of Bethesda was narrowly elected Tuesday night to a second stint as chair of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, a post he held from 2008 to 2013.
Uncapher, who launched his campaign for the job this month, won by a 24-22 vote. He ousted the incumbent, Dick Jurgena of Darnestown, in a battle Uncapher said was about organizational shortcomings in county party. But other GOP sources characterized it as being fueled in large measure by personality conflicts, along with some divisions between older and newer factions within the committee.
The intraparty tensions come as the local GOP hopes next year to reverse a losing streak in which no one has been elected on a Republican ticket in Montgomery County since 2002. According to the Maryland Board of Elections, Republicans had more than a 3-1 disadvantage in voter registration in Montgomery County as of the end of October, when there were nearly 379,000 registered Democrats and slightly less than 116,500 Republicans.
“Obviously, we have a very closely divided committee,” Uncapher observed to central committee members just after his victory was announced. It followed a three-hour session in which the first hour was taken up by procedural wrangling and a couple of close votes.
The subsequent vote for first vice chair of the committee—between the incumbent, Dwight Patel of Bethesda, and Greg Decker of Gaithersburg—initially ended in a 23-23 tie. Patel was running as part of the slate organized by Uncapher.
“I felt I had to stand up and say, ‘No, I don’t want to go back to the previous leadership,’” Decker told the committee in praising Jurgena, who was elected to head the committee last February. Decker added: “I know that Mark and Dwight have done yeoman’s work over the years, but I don’t want to go back to the way things were.”
However, before a tiebreaking vote could be taken, Decker withdrew his candidacy following a plea for unity from the newly elected Uncapher. It guaranteed another term for Patel, an architect and web developer who has held several posts on the committee and been a major contributor to the Montgomery County GOP in recent years.
Also ousted, on a 25-21 vote, was second vice chair Ann Hingston of Bethesda. She was defeated by Jeff Brown of Silver Spring, another member of the Uncapher slate.
Uncapher, an attorney, has served as an executive in recent years at several associations that advocate on behalf of the information technology industry. He was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2016 to the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
He and the other officers chosen Tuesday will serve through next November’s general election.
Jurgena, who heads a mail advertising firm, earlier this year succeeded Rockville attorney Michael Higgs as chair.
Higgs, currently director of the State Department of Assessment and Taxation, was elected first vice chair of the Maryland Republican Party in late 2016. He gave Tuesday’s night’s nominating speech on behalf of Uncapher, who also has been secretary of the state party since last year.
“Dick is a very good man with a big heart … but I think we need to go in a different direction this coming year,” Higgs said, contending that Uncapher “has the political experience we desperately need right now. Mark has been running campaigns and political operations his entire adult life.”
Higgs bluntly framed the challenge facing Republicans in Montgomery County next year. “Montgomery County is going to be the pivot point in this coming election,” he said, alluding to the fact that Montgomery County has the third largest bloc of registered Republican voters among Maryland’s 24 major jurisdictions, despite being far outnumbered by Democrats.
“Can we get our people organized? Can we get people out to the polls who aren’t feeling it this election?” Higgs asked rhetorically. “Can we get the Republicans, the independents, the Democrats who like Gov. Hogan but really don’t like what we’re seeing from our president to come out there and pull the lever for Gov. Hogan—and then do their Democrat thing down the rest of the slate?”
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump lost Montgomery County in 2016 to Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton 75 percent to 19 percent.
Hogan, by comparison, won 37 percent of the vote in Montgomery in capturing a first term in 2014—close to the high point for a Republican candidate in the county in recent decades, as Montgomery has moved increasingly toward Democratic domination.
At the same time, Higgs criticized the leadership under Jurgena for failing to harness the energy of local Trump volunteers in the wake of the 2016 election. “That was a missed opportunity, and those people are out in the wind and not doing work for the Montgomery County GOP,” he said.
Uncapher struck a similar note in announcing his candidacy for chair earlier this month. “Closed meetings have meant that hundreds of enthusiastic Trump Montgomery volunteers were never welcomed into our party this year,” he wrote in an email. “We need to break out of a mindset that Republicans will only be competitive in the highest income ZIP codes of Bethesda and Potomac, especially since that’s not where either Trump or Hogan have done the best in our county.”
While the tone of Tuesday night’s speeches was generally positive, Uncapher was sharply critical of Jurgena’s leadership in the weeks leading up to the vote, including an email sent to Republican central committee members just hours before the meeting.
“Twelve months [ago], I thought that, because of Dick Jurgena’s history within our [state legislative] District 15 organization, as chairman he would use this year to focus on rebuilding our precinct organization,” Uncapher wrote in the email message. “Like many others on the committee, I was mistaken.”
In announcing his candidacy this month, Uncapher took aim at not only Jurgena, but Hingston. Besides her role as the county GOP’s second vice chair, Hingston is also the Republican chair in Bethesda-based state legislative District 16.
“While I was [District] 16 chair, we met monthly publicly, first at the B-CC Center, and later at Bethesda Library. We also held ‘Republican Town Meetings’ in targeted precincts to recruit precinct chairs,” Uncapher wrote. “In contrast, as [District] 16 Chair, Ann Hingston has not held a public legislative district meeting since January.”
He continued, “We must end this ‘closed meeting, private club’ approach that has led to [Montgomery County] GOP’s failure to recruit new blood into the party.”
In response, Hingston passed out a sheet Tuesday night entitled “2017 Leadership Achievements: Moving Forward” that contained a half-dozen steps intended to bring “stability and transparency” to the county Republican committee.
Uncapher also accused Jurgena and Hingston of an effort this past summer aimed at “gutting our participation in the Nation Builder/ Digital Toolkit data management program that the Hogan [2018 re-election] campaign and the Maryland Republican Party had asked us to use.” The so-called “toolkit” is designed to help the local party target potential voters.
Uncapher charged: “That was Dick and Ann not supporting what was needed for our governor’s re-election and not making a valuable technology tool available to our candidates.”
The toolkit issue pitted Patel against Hingston, according to sources: While Patel pushed for purchasing the maximum amount of what the toolkit had to offer from the state GOP, Hingston was said to have argued that the historically cash-strapped Montgomery Republican committee should initially purchase less of the toolkit.
At the same time, Hingston’s supporters credited her with putting the central committee on better financial footing by ramping up fundraising efforts over the past year, including an event this month at the Woodmont County Club in Rockville at which Hogan was the featured attraction. The talking points distributed by Hingston Tuesday noted that party’s net revenue from fundraising events had “more than doubled” to nearly $36,400 in 2017 from $14,800 a year earlier.
In a letter posted on the committee’s website shortly after Uncapher announced his challenge, Jurgena pointed to “the tremendous turnout at our recent reception with Governor Hogan, orchestrated by [Hingston],” and touted the event as “an indication that momentum is with us.”
In a short speech Tuesday night, Jurgena said: “We’ve had 10 great months together. We have shown we can organize, raise funds make a difference in Montgomery County with our testimony before the legislators. We have received compliments from Republicans, independents and Democrats for our participation in public events where we were rarely seen before.”
He added: “By doing so, we will continue to show people who agree with our philosophy that the Republican Party is coming back to life in Montgomery County.”
Jurgena, the Republican candidate for County Council in District 2 in 2014, is regarded as an ardent conservative. His 2016 nomination by Hogan to a state board that awards permits to carry concealed handguns was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Maryland Senate after Jurgena voiced sharp criticism of gun control laws.
However, Jurgena took heat from some other conservatives within the central committee—a group said to include Patel—over his appointment of Amie Hoeber of Potomac, the party’s 2016 nominee for Congress in District 6, as the committee’s finance chair.
Hoeber, in winning the GOP congressional nomination last year, hewed to the party line on most major issues, but angered a number of hardline conservatives as the only candidate in an eight-person primary field to adopt a pro-abortion rights stance.
She lost the 2016 general election to Democratic U.S. Rep. John Delaney, but is considered the early frontrunner for the 2018 GOP nomination for the seat, which Delaney is giving up to pursue a bid for the presidency.