In the wreckage of Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss, liberal lawmakers and advocacy groups have started plotting a major overhaul of the Democratic National Committee, with the aim of using the staid organization to reconnect the party with working-class voters it lost to President-elect Donald Trump.
Much of the talk since Tuesday’s election has focused on selecting a new chairman, with the most frequently mentioned successor being Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who backed the primary bid of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
On Thursday afternoon, former Vermont governor Howard Dean (D) offered his service for a second tenure as DNC chairman, saying on Twitter: "The dems need organization and focus on the young. Need a fifty State strategy and tech rehab. I am in for chairman again."
In an interview, Sanders said he is lobbying for Ellison and argued that the DNC needs to be reoriented so that it becomes less of an insiders' club “preoccupied” with raising money and more of an advocate for the concerns of the working class.
“You can’t tell working people you’re on their side while at the same time you’re raising money from Wall Street and the billionaire class,” Sanders said. “The Democratic Party has to be focused on grass-roots America and not wealthy people attending cocktail parties.”
Sanders acknowledged the need for the party to continue its function as a fundraising vehicle but suggested a model akin to his presidential campaign, which raised much of its money from small-dollar donors.
“Millions of people are willing to put in 20 bucks, 30 bucks, 50 bucks if there’s a party to believe in,” Sanders said.
With Clinton’s loss, the DNC chairman is certain to become a more visible face of the Democratic Party, and the contest to replace interim chairwoman Donna Brazile could become a wide-open affair. Had Clinton won, she would have nominated a successor, and it was expected to be someone close to her.
In a conference call Thursday night with members of the liberal grass-roots group Democracy for Action, Ellison said he would make an announcement Monday about whether he will be a candidate for DNC chairman. He said he was eager to help the party organize going forward.
“My shoelaces are tied up tight, and I’m ready to get out on that court," Ellison said.
Leaders of several progressive groups, who had been courting Clinton as a potential ally on many of their causes, have expressed anger in the aftermath of the election, arguing that the result was a repudiation of a campaign driven by the Democratic establishment.
“The Democratic establishment had their chance with this election,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “It’s time for new leadership of the Democratic Party — younger, more diverse and more ideological — that is hungry to do things differently, like leading a movement instead of dragging people to the polls.”
Taylor said her organization would be supportive of a DNC chairmanship of Ellison, whose choice, others suggested, would convey an important symbolic message during the presidency of Trump, who has proposed temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country. Ellison is a Muslim.
Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the liberal group Democracy for America, said Ellison would be “a potentially phenomenal choice” as DNC chairman, but said the organization was open to other choices, provided they weren’t part of the party establishment.
“I think Tuesday night was a tremendous loss that must sit at the feet of the political establishment of a Democratic Party that preordained the primary process from the very beginning,” said Sroka, whose group backed Sanders in the primaries. “The folks that enabled the loss need to step back and let the grass roots lead it.”
In a sign of tension at the DNC, a staff meeting there was interrupted Thursday by a staff member who stood up and blamed Trump’s win on Brazile, the Huffington Post reported.
“Why should we trust you as chair to lead us through this?” asked the staffer, identified only as Zach, according to the report.
Sanders said the reasons for Clinton’s loss were “fairly obvious” and cited two factors: lower turnout by the Democratic base and the Republican nominee’s far greater appeal to white, working-class voters, which Sanders dubbed “a humiliation for the Democratic Party.”
“White working-class people are deserting the party in droves,” Sanders said.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who with Ellison co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, gave a similar diagnosis, saying Clinton’s loss was “a function of not understanding the electorate.” He argued that the DNC now needs to become a voice for “economic empowerment” to start wooing back voters lost to Trump.
“I think you need to clean house at the DNC, no question about it,” Grijalva said. “You’re going to need a DNC that is not just a money collector and employment agency for consultants and pollsters. They have to be advocates, and not just conduits. The DNC should be both an organizing tool and an advocacy tool.”