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The key question of the DNC race: how broken is the Democratic Party?

Rep. Keith Ellison, Along With Sen. Bernie Sanders, Speaks On His Vision For The Democratic Party
Rep. Keith Ellison, candidate for the DNC chair
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democratic National Committee will elect a new chair on Saturday, in a vote that has pitted the party’s grassroots base and dozens of Democrats in Congress against veterans of President Barack Obama’s White House and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), one of the two leading contenders, enjoys the support of state party chairs, most Democrats in the House, and the Bernie Sanders/populist wing of the party. Former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez has the strong backing of former administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder.

As multiple commentators have pointed out, the purpose of this fight can appear somewhat mystifying. Perez was one of the most left-leaning members of Obama’s Cabinet, muting the contest’s ideological stakes by making it hard to understand what precise ideological division the party’s two factions are fighting over.

But Shauna Daly thinks that interpretation is a polite fiction. A former DNC staffer, Daly says she’s willing to explain the true reason many in Obamaworld have rallied around Perez.

“You’re going to be shocked at me telling you this: Ellison is too liberal to run the DNC,” Daley says. “Tom is not in bed with anybody — he served President Obama; he knows the Clintons — that doesn’t make him establishment any more than it makes me establishment. I served Obama’s administration, but I’m not establishment.”

On Saturday, 447 Democratic Party officials will head to the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta to end this four-month contest over the DNC chair. (Vox’s Andrew Prokop has explained who gets to vote in the election.) All three of the top contenders — Ellison, Perez, and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana — have promised to rebuild the state parties, focus on grassroots organizing, and fight Donald Trump tooth and nail.

But some Democrats are recognizing that the race may turn on a bigger question as well: Should the party respond to its November drubbing by moving right or left?

“The average voter in the United States is moderate. A lot of people in my circles agree with that,” Daly says. “And Ellison is too close to Bernie Sanders.”

The DNC chair raises a lot of money — but doesn’t lead the party agenda

2016 Summer TCA Tour - Day 3 Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

When assessing the race, it’s important to recognize what the chair is not primarily responsible for: leading the party ideologically. “The job of the DNC chair is not to set the policy agenda of the party or make decisions about what positions the party takes on issues,” says Dave Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist. “The party’s candidates decide those.”

The chair is not a public position that tends to be that well-known outside of close followers of politics. Just 17 percent of Democrats have even heard about the DNC chair vote, according to a poll out this week from Morning Consult.

But that doesn’t mean the position is insignificant either. Hopkins says there are two main functions of the party chair: 1) raising money for its candidates, particularly on state and local races, as well as deciding how that money gets spent; and 2) setting the rules for the Democratic presidential primary.

Part of the reason the fundraising aspect of the job is so important is because federal laws on campaign contributions make it legal for individual donors to give up to $33,000 to national parties, like the DNC. (That number is just $2,700 for presidential candidates and $10,000 for state parties.) As a result, the DNC alone has the ability to raise far more money than any other party apparatus.

All of the candidates have vowed to give much of what the DNC raises back to the state parties — to decentralize control of resources in Washington and allow the local offices to spend as they see fit. But that won’t matter unless the chair excels at the unsavory work of currying favor with donors — which is part of the reason some Democrats worry that Ellison may have trouble soliciting funding from the rich donors in the party’s base who rejected Sanders’s campaign.

“The chair of the party has to be incredibly committed to fundraising,” says Shauna Daly, who served as director of research for two years at the DNC. “How much they give to the state parties is, of course, solely going to be a function of how much they raise.”

Why the party’s grassroots faction supports Ellison

Rep. Ellison (D-MN), House Democrats, And Gold Star Father Khizr Khan Speak Out Against Trump's Recent Immigration Ban Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Still, it’s been easy for commentators to see the race as a replay of the ideological fractures from the 2016 Democratic primary, with Ellison drawing support from the Sanders wing and Perez drawing support from the Clinton wing. The analogy even extends to Buttigieg, who has the backing of former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) — also the choice in the primaries for those not sold on Clinton or Sanders.

There’s an element of truth to this story. But the breakdown of officials supporting each candidate is more accurately viewed as pitting the Washington establishment against party officials closer to the local level — regardless of their allegiance during the primary.

Indeed, state party chairs who endorsed Clinton in 2016 have become prominent Ellison supporters. Partly that’s because they want to heal old wounds from the party primary. Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, endorsed Clinton in the presidential primary — to the ire of many voters in his home state, which gave Sanders one of his early victories.

“It’s still a little painful for me to talk about,” Martin says, citing the barrage of phone calls and mail he received from Sanders fans critical of his support for Clinton. “It was a long, tough year.”

Sanders’s supporters were infuriated by what they saw as former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s unfair help of Clinton during the Democratic primary. Getting behind Sanders’s choice for the DNC is a way for Martin to show his voters they have a voice in the party.

“The way I'd put it is I have no doubt in my mind that Tom Perez has the desire to bring all those voices and the party together. The question is if he can,” Martin says.

To be sure, the grassroots/establishment interpretation isn’t perfect. Ellison has support from top officials in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). And Perez has been endorsed by the state party chairs of Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as multiple labor unions.

But Ellison currently has at least 25 state party chair endorsements, as well as the backing of 95 mayors and local officials. Jane Kleeb, the chair of the state Democratic Party of Nebraska and an Ellison supporter, says that’s because state party chairs feel neglected by the Obama wing. Over the past eight years, Democrats suffered massive losses at the state and local level — letting Republicans win back 62 House seats, 12 governorships, and 958 seats in state legislatures.

“We’ve witnessed state parties being starved of resources, and we see Ellison as understanding where state parties come from,” Kleeb says. “State party chairs are very different from the DC political establishment; it's just the reality.”

Adds Jim Larson, chair of the Montana Democratic Party and another Ellison supporter: “It’s been an embarrassment. We made historic mistakes. And mistakes have consequences.”

A dark horse candidate could win the race

Pete Buttigieg

Ellison says he has the support of about 153 voting members of the DNC. And the Perez headcount pegs his number of supporters at about 205 — a number the other candidates have disputed — still shy of the 224 he’d need to win the race outright. (If neither candidate runs on the first ballot, the DNC keeps voting until one candidate reaches a majority.) A survey by Politico released Thursday showed Ellison with a “narrow advantage.”

In the past few days, the uncertainty has given an opening to Buttigieg, the dark horse candidate. A gay military veteran and a Rhodes Scholar, Buttigieg has gained buzz in Democratic circles as a possible unity choice — with recent endorsements from three different DNC chairs.

Buttigieg’s age, 35, also helps blunt one of the main arguments for Ellison — that only someone tied to the Sanders wing can keep his young voters in the party. Indeed, Buttigieg’s backers have taken to arguing that his youth is an essential asset given how much of senior Democratic leadership — particularly in Congress — is approaching 70. (Ellison is 53, and Perez is 55.)

“I don’t think anybody other than Pete understands how to work with millennials — you do not direct them centrally. They do not coordinate all that well; they’re each entrepreneurial and like to do their own thing,” says Howard Dean, a former presidential candidate and governor who served as DNC chair, in an interview.

Dean also said that the DNC under Wasserman Schultz had grown too accustomed to dictating to state and local officials which candidates to run and which strategies to pursue. “It’s a different model — it won’t be Bernie or Obama's campaign. It's decentralized, so people work on what they want to work on,” Dean says.

But while Dean talked up Buttigieg’s ability to innovate away from the DNC’s old ways of doing things, others support him because they think he’ll be able to preserve what the DNC has done well.

Daly framed it this way: Ellison may alienate the business wing that Democrats need to bring in cash. Perez may be unable to energize the grassroots base the party wants to turn up grassroots donors. Buttigieg, she says, can do both.

“I haven’t seen Ellison prove that he would be the strongest candidate to bring in the money the DNC needs,” Daly says. “I’m not calling Ellison an extremist, but I’ve seen Pete work with large donors and his ability to talk to both crowds and bring them both together under the Democratic tent.”

The key question of the race: Is the party in crisis?

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton Campaigns In Florida Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When the DNC meets in Atlanta on Saturday, a range of factors will weigh on committee members’ minds — the candidates’ personal outreach and lobbying, their plans for rebuilding the party, and their capacity for fundraising.

But people on all sides of the race will acknowledge that there’s a perhaps more important question cleaving the two parts of the party — to what extent the Democratic Party is in a state of crisis.

Symone Sanders, a former adviser to Bernie Sanders who later worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, says Ellison is the candidate for those most determined to steer the party ship in a new direction: “Keith represents the fresh way of thinking — he’s never been in the administration; he’s always been willing to do things a little differently.”

Others say Ellison poses unnecessary risks. Senior Democrats in Congress, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have argued that Clinton would have won without a few bad breaks, Russian intervention, and FBI head James Comey’s email investigation. To throw that away in exchange for the unproven approach Sanders represents, they argue, would be madness — particularly given that Obama’s coalition carried two presidential elections already.

“There is a component of this that has become a battle between those who want to blow up the Democratic Party completely and those who want to build on what Hillary Clinton built,” says Peter Daou, a former Clinton adviser who supports Perez. “There is a relatively small faction of progressives who are die-hard Bernie supporters, some Jill Stein supporters, who really believe that the Democratic Party is broken and needs to be broken up.”

Daou added: “[Clinton] won by 3 million votes — if not for 80,000 voters in swing states, we’d be lauding what an amazing victory she had and how Dems were in the ascendancy. That’s my argument: Don’t throw away what Hillary did.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Mo Elleithee, former DNC staffer, saying that Ellison was “too liberal” to run the party. That quote should have been attributed to Daly.

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