ATLANTA — After a string of televised debates, four party-sponsored “future forums” and three months of person-to-person lobbying, the race to lead the Democratic National Committee is coming to an end — with a vote on Saturday that might leave Democrats with new divisions.
According to multiple campaigns, former labor secretary Thomas Perez has the largest share of the DNC’s 447 voting members ready to support him. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was running behind him. In the last week, both were endorsed by rivals who were seen to have a few dozen votes between them; before that, Perez claimed to be just 44 votes away from victory.
“We’re bringing that black and brown coalition together, y’all,” said South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison Friday morning during a Black History Month breakfast event where he reiterated his endorsement of Perez.
The next DNC chairman will take over a party financially drained by the 2016 election but cheered by protests galvanized on a near-daily basis by an unpopular Republican president. The chairman needs to rebuild a bench that was decimated by the 2010 and 2014 midterms, with races in 2017 and 2018 giving the party its last chance, for a decade, to take power in states where gerrymandering of House district boundaries has built a powerful House GOP majority. There is also, of course, the 2020 presidential election and the lack of a clear field to challenge Trump.
Some Democrats, who increasingly see Perez as the next chairman, are bracing for protests no matter who wins. Progressive news outlets have attacked Perez as a stalking horse for the party’s establishment; some prominent donors have said that Ellison, who would be the first Muslim chairman of a major political party, has been too critical of Israel.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of Ellison’s earliest backers, said in a letter distributed by the Ellison campaign that he trusts the congressman on Israel and as a fighter against anti-Semitism. But a race that began with multiple Democratic leaders endorsing Ellison, who was encouraged to run by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), has revealed the limits of “Berniecrats” inside the party structure. Supporters of Ellison and Perez have acknowledged that a victory for Perez would come with a backlash from the left.
“It would be a challenge, especially in states where Bernie did well,” said Brandon Dillon, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and an Ellison supporter.
“It would definitely lead to some conversations with people who are just now getting involved with the party,” said Deborah Langhoff, a DNC member from Louisiana who endorsed Perez.
On policy and on their prescriptions for the party, Perez and Ellison have few substantive differences. Ellison has taken pains in public forums to say that Perez was “an ally” in the Obama administration; both men have promised to pour resources into state and territorial Democratic parties, reversing what was seen as a trend toward centralization during the Obama years.
But outside of the DNC, progressive writers and organizers have begun to ring alarms about an Ellison defeat. On Friday morning, a number of groups that had endorsed Ellison, including MoveOn.org, 350 Action and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, asked DNC members “to be heroes” and back the congressman’s campaign.
“If Keith Ellison is DNC Chair, we can hit the ground running — and because of the pre-existing trust that exists between Keith and the grassroots, every state party would have a head start harnessing the power of the resistance,” they wrote.
On Thursday and Friday, The New Republic and The Intercept published long pieces asking why Perez needed to run in the first place, highlighting the criticism of Ellison from donors. “If the plan to sink Ellison succeeds, the message that will be heard — fairly or not — is that the Democratic Party continues to venerate loyalty to its oligarchical donors above all else,” wrote The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald.
Ellison himself has avoided that tone — and has discouraged supporters from lobbying DNC members. In 2016, many DNC members, who enjoyed superdelegate status at the party’s convention, were deluged by Sanders supporters. While Sanders has called some DNC members on Ellison’s behalf, the senator has warned supporters — sometimes in vain — not to repeat the unsuccessful email and phone-call lobbying of 2016.
“When I see some of the emails, I just ignore them,” Tony Coelho, a former California congressman who was one of the party’s best high-dollar fundraisers, and who is now a Perez-supporting DNC member. “When they call, you know who it is, because they don’t leave voice mail.”
While Sanders supporters have won party leadership positions since the senator’s campaign ended, most of the DNC’s membership backed Hillary Clinton for president. There were cheers on Friday morning when the former secretary of state appeared in a video message, saying that “ideas we championed are now inspiring leaders and activists across our country.”
“Whoever wins — and I really hope it’s Keith — will have a huge responsibility of healing, motivating and activating people,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who backed Clinton for president.
A third DNC candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, spent Friday hoping that Democrats would dodge a backlash by deadlocking and then giving him a chance. At a lunch for supporters, Buttigieg estimated that he had around 30 votes, and told reporters that scores of DNC members have told him he was their second choice if the race dragged on.
That assessment was echoed by Buttigieg’s highest-profile supporter — former presidential candidate and DNC chairman Howard Dean. At the lunch, Dean described Buttigieg as the candidate who could lead a “50-year strategy” for the party (a contrast with Dean’s own “50-state strategy”), and went further than any candidate in criticizing party leadership.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the other candidates, because I like them all, but I think Chuck Schumer’s endorsement is the kiss of death,” Dean said. “I had to say no to Chuck Schumer when he demanded $5 million. I said, ‘Chuck, you’re not getting it for the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee]’ — I’m putting it into local races in Maryland, and South Carolina, and Michigan!”
Dean shouted the last words, making a joke out of the infamous speech he gave after losing the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Asked about the remarks, spokesmen for Schumer and Ellison declined to comment. And in the hallway outside of the lunch, Dean’s brother Jim, who led the progressive group Democracy for America, was offering green “Keith for DNC” shirts to anyone who walked by.