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Democrats fear the DNC race will become a rehash of the Bernie vs. Hillary fight

Labor Secretary Tom Perez (left) and Rep. Keith Ellison (right).
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty, Bill Clark / AFP / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

With Secretary of Labor Tom Perez reportedly planning to announce this week that he’ll run for Democratic National Committee chair, the race for that marquee office will soon be in full swing.

And as the party struggles to find its way in a post-Obama era, many of the people inside and close to the DNC I’ve spoken with in recent weeks say they hope the race for chair will remain focused on the substantive ideas each candidate proposes for rebuilding the party — but they fear it could become a sequel to the bitter 2016 primary fight.

If Perez does jump in, his strongest opposition would be Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who has been in the race for a month already and whose candidacy is being championed by Bernie Sanders. Two other candidates with lower national profiles — New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley, and South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison — are also running so far. (Mayor Pete Buttgieg of South Bend, Indiana is also weighing a bid, Politico reports.)

While Perez was a Clinton supporter and Ellison backed Sanders, both of them have long been understood to have solidly progressive credentials. Both are well-respected throughout the party, and both will likely say generally similar things about where Democrats should go (a better economic message, more organizing, and more focus on the states).

But over the past month, Ellison has already locked up the backing of much of the party’s left wing on economic issues. In addition to Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Ellison has won over union leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Lee Saunders of AFSCME, as well as the official backing of the AFL-CIO. In addition, he’s gotten establishment nods of approval from the incoming and outgoing Senate Democratic leaders, Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid.

Still, all sides acknowledge the race remains wide open. “Keith is clearly ahead. But I think the race is very fluid. I don’t think anyone has the votes right now to win outright,” says Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party chair Ken Martin, who has endorsed Ellison.

And many DNC members from state parties — who make up the vast majority of the committee’s membership — weren’t yet sold on Ellison’s candidacy, and have been waiting to see whether another candidate with stature would jump in, I’m told.

“The feedback I’ve heard [after recent candidate events] is that everyone’s been fine but people wanted to see a broader field. There’s been a ‘waiting for Tom Perez’ dynamic,” one undecided state party chair tells me. “People are putting a very high bar before they’re deciding who they’ll be for. It’s the world against the Democratic Party right now. We need someone who can really take charge, and be a unique leader at a challenging time.”

Look to the state chairs

While some currently undecided DNC members are hoping that leader will be Perez, they acknowledge that he’ll have to actually make the sale to the 447 or so voting members. That’s who actually gets a vote in this election.

Furthermore, the vast majority of votes will be cast by people chosen in the various state chapters of the Democratic Party — not by national party leaders, interest groups, or progressive organizations. Around 70 percent of DNC members are chosen at the state party level, with the remainder being chosen by various national Democratic groups or by the DNC chair herself. (I’ve posted the names on a membership list I obtained, dated November 2016, here.)

While all of those members technically get to make up their own minds, in practice many are heavily influenced by their state party leaders. So it will be crucial for candidates to win support among those state Democratic chairs — many of whom feel very neglected indeed after Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s long tenure.

“Debbie’s continuation of [former DNC Chair Howard Dean’s] 50-state strategy was to give every party, like, $5,000 or $7,500 a month,” says one former senior Democratic official. “Which meant they could literally hire one staffer a year. So they really feel like they’ve been left out to dry.”

In the last contested race for DNC chair, in 2005, Dean won his outsider bid partly by selling DNC members on his organizing and fundraising abilities — but also, crucially, by taking advantage of their resentment of national party leaders and their desire for cold hard cash.

Indeed, Dean promised to hand over at least $11 million to state party chapters to help them pay staffers — a promise that helped him win the endorsement of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, a group that can control a hefty number of votes in the race if it unites. That endorsement effectively ended the race. By the time the actual DNC election rolled around two weeks later, all of Dean’s opponents had dropped out, and he won in a voice vote without opposition.

This time around, some state party chairs — including in Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Hawaii — have endorsed Ellison early. But the vast majority remain up for grabs, and they could be the key swing bloc here.

Many Democrats fear another Sanders/Clinton-esque fight

Furthermore, in recent days, there’s been a gnawing concern among Democrats of all ideological stripes that the race may turn into an attempt to refight the 2016 primary, since Bernie Sanders has made Ellison’s election as chair a high priority, and since the behavior of the DNC was so controversial during that primary.

Ellison’s supporters were discomfited by a report by the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman last month that Obama White House advisers “uneasy” with Ellison’s candidacy had urged Perez to run. Regardless of Perez’s progressive record, this intervention seemed to them to smack of yet another party establishment effort to block the preferred choice of Sanders and Warren. Conversely, Perez fans fear that his long record of progressive activism will be unfairly attacked simply because he is choosing to run for chair against Sanders’s preferred choice.

Still, Ellison may in fact be hurt more if the race devolves into a bitter grudge match between Sanders fans and establishment Democrats. That’s because he actually wants to win, and this election will be decided by actual DNC members, many of whom have been in party politics for quite some time and the vast majority of whom backed Hillary Clinton. If the race becomes a proxy war between Sanders and Clinton backers, Ellison would be very likely to lose.

Ellison clearly realizes this, and has deliberately chosen not to frame the race as “Clinton versus Sanders Part Two.” He’s instead saying that he’s running to be the leader of the entire party, arguing that he’s best qualified to heal its divisions, rebuild it, and expand its appeal — not to purge it of the establishment or wage a class war.

“If you are in the 1 percent, there’s a whole lot of folks in that 1 percent who believe that America should have liberty and justice for all. That’s true!” Ellison said at a candidate forum in Ohio on Saturday. “The Democratic Party should be your vehicle to make sure that that can happen. The problem is ... that for some people it’s not perceived to be that right now.”

What’s happened in the DNC race so far

Lingering tensions from the primaries haven’t dominated the race so far. Instead, the issue that got a great deal of discussion over the past few weeks was the question of whether the DNC needed a full-time chair, rather than a part-timer who was also a member of Congress like Wasserman Schultz.

At first, Ellison wouldn’t commit to resigning his congressional seat and focusing on the DNC full time if elected. But last week, he put this concern to rest and committed to do so, as have the other candidates in the race.

The concerns about a full-time chair, I was repeatedly told, were very real to many. However, Ellison’s supporters suspect they were also used as a convenient argument for party forces opposed to him. “I think Keith’s critics have been using the part-time chair and full-time chair thing against him, and now they’re gonna be looking for another angle to attack him on,” says Ken Martin.

There’s also been some discussion about the accusations of anti-Semitism against Ellison, which Jeff Stein wrote about here. Democrats I’ve talked to tend to think the charges are trumped up and won’t be fatal to his candidacy.

Still, according to the former senior Democratic official, at least some party members are looking at the Anti-Defamation League condemning Ellison and privately saying that the dust-up is “a distraction we don’t need,” fearing a new chair who would come in “with a significant amount of controversy around them.” The official adds: “I’ve heard from a number of people, ‘Ugh, he’s being taken out of context but do we really wanna have this fight?’”

Overall, though, state Democrats say they want to assess which candidate for chair has the best ideas and the best plan for rebuilding the party from its current dire state across the country, and that they still have an open mind about who’s best equipped to do that.

“This needs to be a long conversation about why we lost and what needs to happen,” says the state Democratic chair. “We want to hear from these folks, about what they’ll do. And we want to tell them our concerns about the erosion of the party and its presence in the states.”

DNC finance chair Henry Muñoz III, who is running for another term and hasn’t endorsed any candidate for chair yet, concurs. “Things need to change,” he says. “Revolutionary thinking needs to be applied to the party’s operation, because the culture of the [DNC’s Washington, DC,] building is out of sync with the time that we’re living in.”