The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why did Keith Ellison lose the DNC race?

Former labor secretary Thomas Perez narrowly defeated Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for chair of the Democratic National Committee following a contentious battle over the fate of their party. Ellison called on his supporters to rally behind the new chairman. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

The Democratic National Committee was bracing for a backlash if Thomas Perez won its chairmanship, and it got one. In the AmericasMart meeting room where Perez defeated Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), nine protesters from Democracy Rising carried out quite the protest — chants of “party of the people, not big money” as Perez and outgoing interim DNC chair Donna Brazile gritted their teeth. Writers on the left, including Nathan J. Robinson, Matt Bruenig and Corey Robin, were quick to ask whether the Democratic establishment had a death wish.

“The left should focus its energies on organizing under alternative institutions that, if they engage with the Democratic party at all, only do so in order to attempt hostile takeovers of various power positions,” Bruenig wrote. “Only a sucker would do more than that, given what the party has just shown itself to be about at this time.”

As one of just two reporters who went to every DNC forum — the other was Nomiki Konst, a Young Turks reporter who will also serve on the DNC's “unity commission” to change the primary system — I saw angst about this reaction building for weeks. I also saw why 235 DNC members decided to back Perez. Had the race been shorter, Ellison might well have won. But a few converging factors blunted his momentum — and they weren't the factors that got the most coverage.

Winner and losers from the DNC chairman’s race

DNC members were not ready to reject the Obama legacy. The basic critique of Bruenig et al is right: The leadership of the Democratic Party, nationally and in most states, has resisted acknowledging the failures of the Obama years. Brazile opened the first of the party's four “future forums” by telling Democrats that the DNC “failed you” in 2016 and “got cocky about our invincible blue wall.”

But for Brazile and other Democrats, the death blows to the party's 2016 campaign were struck by Russian hacking and by FBI Director James B. Comey. They have little time for the activists who say that the Democratic primary between Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Hillary Clinton was “rigged” — the “evidence,” the establishment wing says, comes from emails hacked from the DNC and the Clinton campaign and released at damaging times to divide the party. (This is separate from the issue of then-DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz scheduling only a few, late party presidential debates, which even Perez criticized. When he stumbled and appeared to say that the primary had been “rigged,” he explained that he was talking only about the debates.)

The DNC, composed of leaders from 57 state and territorial parties and scores of at-large members, roiled with frustrations over how the Obama-era party had lost. But the left's critique of the Obama years — that it had pursued neoliberal policies and left running room for populists such as Donald Trump — is not yet accepted across the party.

It was notable when Ellison was endorsed by AFSCME, AFL-CIO and AFT leaders because their unions had endorsed Clinton while disagreeing with her on trade policy. But to more DNC members, the party was losing for a more prosaic reason — a lack of local investment. To the Obama administration veterans who backed Perez, and urged him into the race, Ellison and Sanders had criticized their policies without achieving anything of their own. They easily won over DNC members who agreed; they added votes from party activists who simply needed more money and support.

“The president himself has said we need to do more to rebuild the Democratic Party infrastructure,” Perez told the Huffington Post last year, referring to Obama.

Perez closed the ideological gap in the party, and Ellison let him. In late 2004, when Howard Dean entered the race to run the DNC, some Democratic leaders put forward a candidate of their own — former congressman Tim Roemer of Indiana, a centrist who had served on the 9/11 Commission. It was a debacle, with progressives picking over Roemer's spotty record on abortion rights and Social Security. The candidate quit within weeks.

As this year's “establishment” candidate, Perez posed almost no ideological challenge to Ellison or Sanders voters, or the party platform they had helped to write. (Ellison served on the 2016 platform committee.) He broke with them on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, as a member of the Obama administration, he supported. But when he did so, he always posited TPP as an improvement on deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he'd opposed.

But on most of the left's other causes, Perez was simpatico. Inside the Obama administration, he supported raising the minimum wage and endorsed the Fight for $15 campaign; he pushed through regulations that hiked overtime pay; he sued states that implemented voter ID laws. In the summer of 2016, when he was floated as a running mate for Hillary Clinton, conservatives labeled him radical, and progressive groups said he'd be preferable to the eventual choice, Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.).

Ellison would have struggled to run to Perez's left, and he largely did not try. While there was plenty of video footage of Perez defending the TPP, Ellison's campaign stayed positive and did not use any of the televised forums to ding Perez over the trade deal. Having also discouraged supporters from calling DNC members to back him, Ellison framed the “Hillary-Bernie rematch” narrative of the race as a dishonest creation of the media.

Given the makeup of the DNC, that might have been Ellison's best strategy. But it left him in a bind.

Trump smoothed over the party's differences. On Jan. 19, Perez was freshly retired from the Obama administration and still somewhat awkward in public forums. One week later, at the first party forum after Trump took office, Perez was sharper, telling DNC members at a reception and the livestreamed forum that the new president deserved "all the respect that Mitch McConnell gave Barack Obama” and dropping the word “bulls***" to decry the president's executive orders and Cabinet picks.

Ellison was just as harsh, but the dawn of the Trump presidency gave Perez and the other serious DNC candidates chances to prove that they, too, could link arms with activists. Perez and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg joined protests at Houston's international airport; they and some rivals agreed that the Democratic Party needed to embrace “the resistance,” not lead it. Perez, for the first time, had a forum to discuss his early days running an immigration rights nongovernmental organization in Maryland. Ellison, who had spent his entire political career as an on-the-ground activist, saw the distinctions between candidates get blurred — Trump's unpopularity and actions would fuel a movement, no matter who was DNC chair.

Over the last month of the race, DNC members became less nervous about the implicit threat of the Ellison campaign. How many Sanders supporters would really walk away from electoral politics if Ellison lost? Persephone Dakopolos, a new DNC member from Missouri who supported Ellison, suggested that the die-hards fit into a couple of categories. Very few would quit forever; some would quit, then come back as Trump's rampage continued; most would stay involved, if at a lower level.

Video: After winning DNC chair, Perez makes Ellison deputy chair

A persistent smear campaign cost Ellison votes. In November and December, when it seemed that Ellison was on a glide path to victory, conservative websites and some Jewish groups went after him for his criticism of Israel's policy toward Palestinians and his defense of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. By Dec. 15, when Perez actually entered the race, Ellison had already apologized. And for much of the campaign, the issue was absent. The only flash point on the “anti-Semitism” charge came at a Huffington Post-moderated debate, where Ellison's rivals agreed that donor Haim Saban should apologize for calling Ellison an anti-Semite.

In the final days of the campaign, Ellison's harshest critics — including Alan Dershowitz, who donates to Democrats but is not particularly involved in the party — reemerged to smear the congressman's record on Jewish issues. The National Jewish Congress put out fresh criticisms of Ellison, which Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), an Ellison supporter, publicly disputed. Young Turks' Konst obtained a formulaic-seeming email sent to undecided DNC members, warning them that electing Ellison would “send the wrong message” on Israel.

The attacks on Ellison ate up a surprising amount of the space that the DNC race earned in mainstream media. (Dershowitz's media savvy didn't hurt.) It negatively affected Ellison only around the margins, but in a race decided by 18 votes, it stung.

The Berniecrats haven't taken over yet. Perez saw an opening to run in December because, after a month as a declared candidate, Ellison was seen to have just one-sixth of the DNC behind him. But as state parties elected new members this year, Ellison's numbers ticked up. It happened most dramatically in Kansas, where, on the day of the DNC vote, two new pro-Ellison members were winning office and trying to get proxy votes for him back in Atlanta.

In 2016, Sanders won the support of just 39 of the DNC's 447 voting members — all of whom, infamously, were superdelegates to the party's convention. Nine months after Sanders's defeat, Ellison won the votes of 200 DNC members. Some, like the AFT's Randi Weingarten, had been Clinton supporters, but plenty had been brought into the party by Sanders. Ellison's defeat, ironically, meant that tens or hundreds of thousands of activists who might have joined the party were now wringing their hands instead. But in states where Sanders performed strongly in 2016, just as many activists were already in the middle of a takeover. It just didn't happen in time for Ellison.