Democracy Dies in Darkness

Monkey Cage | Analysis

Why there's a battle royale to lead the Democratic Party, and what it means for the Trump era

By Boris Heersink

December 19, 2016 at 7:00 AM

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Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is running for Democratic National Committee chair. Here’s what you need to know about him. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

After a bruising election year, both the Democratic and Republican national committees are in the process of selecting new chairs. But the parties are going about this in very different ways.

On the Republican side, President-elect Donald Trump has selected an insider — Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chair of the Michigan Republican Party — as the next RNC chair. In the Democratic Party, several people have announced their candidacies in what The Washington Post has called "a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party." Why is there such a big difference? And how will the DNC and RNC chairs matter in the Trump era?

What's going on right now

Currently, there are two major candidates for the DNC chairmanship: Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Ellison and Perez represent two distinct wings of the Democratic Party. Ellison is seen as a liberal — one marker: he has the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders — while Perez is seen as the candidate of the party's more centrist Obama-Clinton wing.

On the Republican side, McDaniel will replace Reince Priebus, who will serve as Trump's chief of staff. She represents the traditional GOP. She worked in a variety of election campaigns before becoming chair of the Michigan GOP in 2015. She's part of an important lineage in GOP politics: Mitt Romney is her uncle, and George W. Romney, the governor of Michigan in the 1960s, was her grandfather.

Why the DNC and the RNC matter

The DNC and the RNC are important because they help organize presidential election campaigns, raise and distribute money among candidates across the country, provide campaign advice, and promote the national parties through massive 'educational campaigns' intended to produce party brands.

Scholars disagree, however, about how much power national committees actually have over their party. Some political scientists have concluded that the DNC and the RNC are "service providers" that help candidates but are otherwise powerless because they lack control over candidate selection.

However, scholars like Philip Klinkner, Daniel Galvin and Brian Conley believe that the committees do affect how their parties evolve. Both the DNC and the RNC have frequently interjected themselves into major intraparty debates with the intent of reshaping their parties.

Why there's a battle on the Democratic side

Here's a key fact: The national committees are much more active in shaping the party when their party is out of the White House. Because they are not under the control of a president, the out-party's chair does more to decide what the party committee does. This raises the stakes for the selection of the chair.

For example, the DNC chair from 1955 to 60, Paul Butler, tried to excommunicate Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party. Bill Brock (1977-1980) tried to reach out to black voters by building ties between the RNC and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. More recently, Howard Dean (2005-2008) used his "50-state strategy" to target blue-collar voters who opposed the Democratic Party's positions on abortion, LGBT rights and gun control.

In contrast, "in-party" chairs serve at the pleasure of their president — and so they must support the president. History shows that although out-party chairs frequently serve four-year terms, in-party chairs serve shorter terms. For example, Richard Nixon appointed three committee chairs, Bill Clinton five, and George W. Bush six. Presidential power in this regard is almost absolute: Ronald Reagan even appointed daughter Maureen co-chair of the RNC in 1986 — to the frustration of many Republicans.

What to expect under a Trump presidency

The selection of McDaniel is only a minor victory for traditional Republicans. McDaniel will lead the party only as long as Trump approves. Because Trump has manifested little interest in intraparty politics and because Republicans have unified control of government and a majority of governorships, the RNC is likely to play only a minor role in the Trump era.

But the opposite may be true for the DNC. Without a president in office and with minorities in Congress, the next DNC chair will have more incentive to use the position to revitalize the Democratic Party.

This explains why Democratic leaders are so invested in the race for DNC chair. If Ellison wins, the DNC will probably focus on blue-collar white voters who turned their backs on the Democrats. If Perez wins, the party will focus on the coalition of minorities and highly educated voters that helped Obama win in 2008 and 2012.

Boris Heersink is a PhD candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

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