Amid the wreckage of Hillary Clinton’s loss, Democrats have started jockeying for control of the national party — and vigorously debating a dramatic course correction in response to Donald Trump’s election.
The upcoming choice of a new Democratic National Committee chairman could become an early proxy fight between the establishment wing of the party, embodied by Clinton, and the party’s more liberal members, many of them aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the party’s runner-up in the Democratic primaries.
Sanders and other liberal lawmakers and advocacy groups say the DNC needs to be reimagined as less of an insider’s club focused on raising money and more of an advocate for the working-class voters won over Tuesday by the Republican president-elect.
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 now appears to be a wide-open affair. Brazile stepped in for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who announced her resignation in July after the release of a trove of hacked emails that suggested that the DNC was aiding Clinton in preference to Sanders in the primaries.
Had Clinton won Tuesday, she would have been expected to name a political ally to head the DNC.
The candidate garnering the most early attention is Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a favorite of liberal advocacy groups and a Muslim — a fact that his supporters argue would send a strong signal about the party’s diversity during Trump’s tenure.
Support for Ellison has extended beyond his liberal base; already backed by Sanders, he won the endorsement Friday of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to be the next Senate minority leader.
Ellison plans to announce his bid for the chairmanship Monday.
Sanders said he thinks a DNC “preoccupied” with raising large sums of money from wealthy donors was partly responsible for Tuesday’s loss.
“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.”
On a conference call Saturday between Clinton and her top donors, her finance director, Dennis Cheng, said Clinton’s fundraising operation had raised $972 million for her campaign, the DNC and state parties. Of that amount, 56 percent was “generated by the people on this call,” Cheng said.
In total, the campaign held more than 1,500 fundraisers, of which Clinton attended nearly 400 herself, and more than 3 million people made donations, Cheng said.
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,” he said.
His views have been echoed by several liberal groups that are supportive of Ellison.
“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.”
Those more closely aligned with Clinton are cautioning against overreacting to an election in which she appears to have won the popular vote. Among at least eight hopefuls for chairman who have emerged, still others are billing themselves as unifiers between Clinton and Sanders supporters.
Those include former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who said Friday that he is taking a “hard look” at seeking the chairmanship. O’Malley, who ended his presidential bid after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, said he thinks he was the second choice of many Sanders supporters and that many Clinton supporters have encouraged him to seek the DNC role.
“That puts me in a unique position right now to bridge that divide,” said O’Malley, who previously headed the Democratic Governors Association. “We need to come together. We need to start acting like a party again.”
At least four of those hoping to become party chairman are Latino, a sign of that demographic’s growing clout within the party.
During a conference call Thursday with members of the liberal advocacy group Democracy for America, Ellison said the party needs to become more of a presence in local communities across the country. He argued that television advertising and sophisticated data analysis of voter behavior is no substitute “for getting Dems together around a pot of chili and getting to know them.”
Already, Ellison has come under fire from some Democrats who argue that their party needs a full-time chairman and that his continuing to serve in Congress would make that impossible.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who served as DNC chairman a decade ago, announced plans to try to regain the position and made the case for a full-time role.
“Look, I like Keith Ellison a lot,” Dean said during a Friday appearance on MSNBC. “He’s a very good guy. There’s one problem: You cannot do this job and sit in a political office at the same time. It’s not possible.”
That view was echoed Friday by longtime Democratic operative Harold Ickes: “I do think there’s a very strong argument for a full-time DNC chair, especially for a party out of power.”
Henry Muñoz III, the DNC’s national finance chairman who helped Clinton collect millions of dollars for her campaign, said Friday that he is considering a bid for party chairman but also is in touch with other Hispanic leaders about ensuring that the DNC more properly represents Latino concerns.
“The one thing that is abundantly clear is that the Latino community held up their end of the bargain,” Muñoz said. “We did deliver on our promise.”
Hispanics accounted for at least 11 percent of all voters on Election Day, according to national exit polls — a one-percentage-point increase from the 2012 presidential election.
Muñoz said the participation of Latinos would have been even greater if the party had been more attuned to their concerns in the past four years.
In addition to Muñoz, outgoing Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) are said to be considering running for chairman. Muñoz confirmed that he is in touch with all of them.
On the basis of the wide interest, “I expect our perspective will be presented up front in the talks about the DNC going forward,” he said.
“I think we’re a long way from making a pick,” he added.
Gallego, 36, a former U.S. Marine corporal who represents most of the Phoenix area, is popular with younger congressional Democrats and is seen as a rising figure in a new generation of Democratic leaders. Becerra, who was an avid campaigner for Clinton, is said to be considering the DNC job now that he will not have an opportunity to serve in a Clinton Cabinet, as he had expected.
Another potential contender eyeing the race is Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Harrison said the next DNC chairman should focus far more on helping build the state Democratic parties, including his, across the country.
“There’s no party-building that’s taking place,” he said. “It becomes incredibly difficult to recruit candidates.”
Jason Kander, who lost the Senate race in Missouri to Roy Blunt (R) on Tuesday, also is considering a run for chairman, according to people close to him.
Some longtime Democrats say the race has probably begun prematurely — particularly as the party is still mourning Clinton’s loss.
Former national chairman Don Fowler, a fixture in South Carolina, said, “I think it’s somewhat ill-advised for people to get in and try to do all of this during a funeral.”
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.