The race to be the next head of the Democratic National Committee has quickly turned into a proxy fight between liberals and establishment types about where the party needs to go in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss at the hands of Donald Trump on Tuesday.
Liberals are insistent that Clinton’s defeat was the result of nominating a candidate who failed to excite the party’s base of progressives, African Americans and Hispanics. Establishment voices fret that nominating a liberal to run the party misses the point of an election in which Clinton’s loss can be directly traced to her inability to win over white voters in the industrial Midwest.
“The next DNC chair needs to understand what became painfully obvious in the election — that there are two different Americas and that Democrats are really struggling to bridge the gap between the two,” said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic operative who runs the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service. “The fundamental problem is that the party stopped really communicating what it means to be a Democrat.”
No matter which side of that argument you take, what’s clear is that there is an unexpected power vacuum within the Democratic Party at the moment. Clinton was considered a shoo-in on Tuesday, meaning that no one thought that the DNC job would be open or that the 2020 Democratic nomination would even be a thing.
What that means is that the DNC fight is the first in a series of scrambles among ambitious pols trying to seize the moment in the wake of the shocking end of Clintonism.
“This is suddenly a really important gig as one of the centers of opposition,” said one longtime Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly assess the DNC race. “You can’t do it part time, and you shouldn’t do it while sitting inside one of the most despised institutions in the country.”
The DNC chair field doesn’t look set just yet — Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) remains a real possibility, for example — but here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates who are either running or leaning that way.
* Ray Buckley: A current vice chair at the DNC, Buckley has said that he is being “strongly encouraged to run” for the top job. If he does, Buckley, who serves as the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, would probably cast himself as the only candidate who truly understands the hopes and desires of the 300-plus committee members. Still, a party insider from New Hampshire doesn’t seem like the sort of “change” candidate many Democrats are clamoring for.
* Howard Dean: Dean was the last full-time chairman of the DNC and oversaw the hugely successful 2006 midterm and 2008 presidential elections. While many party establishment types insisted that those victories came despite Dean and not because of him, it’s still a record of success that no other modern DNC chair can claim. In announcing his bid, Dean made clear that he would work to reinstitute his signature “50-state strategy” and broaden the party’s appeal to young people. Not everyone is a fan of that plan. “The problem with the ‘50-state strategy’ was it never really was a strategy,” one senior party professional said. “It was a marketing slogan.”
* Keith Ellison: The Minnesota congressman is one of the most visible liberals in Congress. And many people within the party believe that Ellison, as a Muslim American and an African American, is exactly the sort of person the party should put forward to counter President Trump. Even before he has formally announced whether he will run, Ellison has won the endorsements of Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). The knock on Ellison is that he has a day job, making it impossible to focus full time on rebuilding a party infrastructure that badly needs it. “I absolutely love Keith and think he’s great,” a former DNC senior official said. “But [we] need a full-time organizational leader who gets the importance of the tyranny of data but who also has the skills to negotiate the intersection of blue-collar fears and urban aspirations.”
* Martin O’Malley: The former Maryland governor and 2016 presidential candidate said Friday that he is taking a “hard look” at the chairmanship. If he runs, he’s likely to pitch himself as the hybrid that Democrats need: a committed liberal on policy but someone also able to reach working-class, white voters who have walked away from the party in recent elections. Another O’Malley edge: He could do the job full time because, well, he’s not doing anything else in politics these days.
* Thomas Perez: The sitting labor secretary was seen by many liberals as the ideal vice-presidential pick for Clinton. She passed. But the same traits that recommended Perez as vice president are also potentially intriguing in a DNC chair: a liberal, Hispanic voice with ties to President Obama. Perez is reportedly interested in the race, but his candidacy is less advanced than the other names on this list.