Swept from power, Democratic leaders in Washington and the states are increasingly nervous that the best-case scenario fight for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee will be a long, ugly redux of the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders primary.
But an even broader, more vicious factional scramble may be looming.
A group of high-profile liberals and establishment figures is moving swiftly to nip such a tussle in the bud by coalescing around Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison — who has not formally announced his bid, but who appears prepared to on Monday after receiving backing from Sanders, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, progressive groups like MoveOn.org, and kind words from Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But a former chairman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — a Clinton backer and serious Sanders critic during the primary who is a favorite of state party chairs due to his pioneering a 50-state strategy that would empower them — also jumped into the race on Thursday, making the picture far less straightforward.
Meanwhile others in the party, including New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman and DNC vice chair Raymond Buckley — who runs the Association of State Democratic Chairs — South Carolina Chairman Jaime Harrison, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra are said to be open to bids of their own, fielding calls from other DNC members about their interest. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said on Friday morning that he is considering a run. DNC vice chair R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis who nearly got the role under Barack Obama, and retiring New York Rep. Steve Israel — a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair — are also in the mix.
“There’s going to be a fight of progressives versus the moderates, which, to be honest, is what got us into this place in the first place,” predicted former senior DNC official Mo Elleithee, now the executive director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University. “The left versus right versus center doesn’t exist anymore.”
The fight goes even further.
“The idea that after everything we just went through, that the D.C. Democrats are literally, apparently, already —without anyone else even knowing what the heck the plan is — saying, ‘This is the person,’ I think is a terrible look,” said one state party chairman. “I’m glad these conversations are happening with someone, but it’s not [yet among] a broad enough group of people.”
Even proponents of Ellison — a Sanders backer during the primary who then went out of his way to support Clinton after ringing the anti-Donald Trump alarms early — acknowledge that an ugly fight is likely, despite the backing from Schumer, suddenly the de facto highest-ranking Democrat in Washington in the post-Clinton, post-Obama era.
The DNC member vote for the next chair — a role that traditionally matters due to its centrality in fundraising and setting strategy for the party, though not necessarily as Democrats’ ideological leader — was expected to come the day after President-elect Clinton’s inauguration in January, and it was expected to be a pro forma move for Clinton’s pick for the role. But due to the former secretary of state’s shocking loss, it is likely to be moved to February or March, multiple Democrats familiar with the initial planning told POLITICO.
That sets the stage for at least two full months of campaigning that will come amid recriminations and finger-pointing after the party’s defeats on Tuesday, which saw it lose not only the White House while Republicans kept the Senate and House, but also saw its hold slip to just 16 governorships while the GOP built on its own advantage in state legislatures.
“You typically look for three things when you’re looking for a chair. A good fundraiser, a good messenger and someone who can focus on infrastructure,” explained Elleithee, advocating a wholesale reimagining of the committee’s role as soon as possible before the coming redistricting that could reshape the party for a generation. “President Trump will be the best fundraiser the DNC will ever have. So let’s focus on the other two.”
And the race comes at a critical inflection point for the DNC, which is itself deeply unpopular among die-hard Sanders supporters who feel validated by Clinton’s loss and are still furious with the institution and past chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz for her stewardship of the primary. At an all-staff meeting on Thursday a junior staffer even publicly confronted interim chair Donna Brazile — who is expected to step aside — over the committee’s role in the Clinton-Sanders fight, shocking the already upset staffers in the room. Operatives there, unsure of what to do it in a post-Clinton era, are split over who the next chair should be and were stunned by the disruption. At the same time, prominent Democrats are sprinting to step into the sudden vacuum as the party’s ideological or spiritual — not mechanical — leader: Warren’s quickly arranged address at the AFL-CIO on Thursday was clearly intended to do just that, while other Democrats warn that the DNC race is just a proxy for the broader fight: “model U.N.,” in the words of one former governor.
Sanders’ political team has already mobilized around Ellison, encouraging its massive email list of supporters to back him, and progressive leaders around the country are heartened by his interest.
“Ellison is an exciting choice. The contrast could not be more clear, and not just with Trump, but with the Democratic Establishment picks of the past,” said Rebecca Katz, a party strategist who has worked as a senior adviser to both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid — the latter during the 2005 chairmanship battle.
Indeed, much of the rush of activity this week has come from the Sanders side of the Clinton-Sanders divide, largely since the left has a set of figures to organize around while the center of the party — Clinton’s side — is still finding its place in the new ecosystem, suddenly without a leader for the first time in years.
While Ellison appears to have broad support as a young African-American face of the party who can bridge the Sanders-Clinton divide and — as one of the few Muslim members of Congress — stand at the front of the anti-Trump vanguard, already some Democrats have started wondering aloud about the various chair candidates’ commitments to reaching out to the working class white voters who backed Trump versus doubling down on Democrats’ existing coalition. Others have already raised red flags that there are no women whose names are circulating for the position.
And Dean, who won a hard-fought race for the chairmanship after his failed presidential run in 2004, is likely to find broad support among the party members who do get to vote, even though he has infuriated members of the left through his Sanders criticism and his work for a lobbying firm.
A conference call of state party chairs on Thursday afternoon left participants with the understanding that they had come to an informal agreement to vote as a bloc when the time comes, according to multiple individuals who were on the call.
A face-off between Dean and Ellison, however, is still likely to be heated.
Meanwhile, senators and House members have been making calls to other potential leaders to gauge their interest, and party members have been internally discussing whether they want someone who has a lot of Washington experience — like Ellison or Harrison, who served on House Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn’s staff — or who has experience running and raising money for a large organization or state party — like Dean, Buckley or O’Malley, who ran the Democratic Governor’s Association before becoming a loud DNC critic even before Sanders as a presidential candidate. Another complication for Ellison and Becerra: After the rocky tenure of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, many DNC members have openly said they don’t want the chairman to be a sitting elected official because of their divided attention — and some have floated a return to the co-chair model popular in the 1990s that saw one chair focus on being the public face and another focus on operations.
“Having a sitting member is an awful idea. It’s just an issue of practicality,” said one former senior DNC official. “You need someone who has their undivided attention on the job. Best-case scenario, they’re spending a third of his time on House work and it’s really more of a 50-50 split.”
And it was the first thing out of former DNC chair Don Fowler’s mouth, too: “It’s a full-time job, and I would hope that anybody who would seek to fill that position would devote full time to it,” he said.
Dean himself echoed that sentiment on MSNBC on Friday morning.
“Look, I like Keith Ellison a lot, 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, we have seen what happens,” he said. “Debbie Wasserman Schultz wasn’t the only one to do that. This is a full-time job. We have to rebuild from what has been a tragedy not only for the Democratic Party, but perhaps for the country. We don’t know. So this is a big, big rebuilding job. And I like Keith, I would be happy to help and support him, but not if he’s going to sit in Congress. There are a very large number of DNC members who believe that.”
O’Malley, for one, has been getting calls from Democrats suggesting his anti-Trump activity and progressive leanings during the election could set him up for success, according to a person familiar with the calls, who also noted that he is neither a Sanders nor a Clinton acolyte, who could thereby avoid an ugly fight.
Still, the field is far from set, and only Dean has made a formal announcement of his intention to run. A handful of prominent Democrats who fully expected to get roles in a Clinton Cabinet are suddenly casting about for their own next steps: Labor Secretary Tom Perez’s name has popped up in that context, after he was widely assumed to be a contender to lead Clinton’s Justice Department. And party leaders are adamant that the next formal chair of the party be committed to systematically rebuilding from the ground up Democratic infrastructure that’s been decimated in the Obama era.
Clinton had expressed a determination to do that, but her role is suddenly gone.
And, still, important pieces of the party’s coalition have yet to weigh in, just three days after Election Day. There has been no formal word from labor leaders, let alone Clinton, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, or even Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate and a former DNC chairman himself. Pelosi may stay out of the race entirely if multiple Democrats close to her — including members of Congress in her caucus — jump in, according to a senior House aide.
“As a matter of strategy, it is critical now that Democrats become purposeful about the handoff from aging boomers to the next generation, helping them prepare to lead the party and the country,” said Simon Rosenberg, who ran against Dean for the job in 2005, and who is now the president of the NDN think tank. “Our future is with those under 45, and the next chair needs to be able to lead a national effort to excite and engage the emerging electorate that holds promise for our party.”
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