Democratic National Committee chair traditionally is not one of the most important jobs in American politics. But after suffering devastating electoral losses in 2010, 2014 and 2016, Democrats are running low jobs that matter ― and in such a political environment, the next DNC chair could play a critical role in reversing the party’s deteriorating political fortunes. On Wednesday at 7 p.m. EST, The Huffington Post will be hosting a debate with the seven major candidates at George Washington University. Scroll down for more info, or suggest a question with the hashtag #DNCDebate on Twitter or Facebook.
When Democrats hold the White House, the president handpicks the DNC chair, whose job primarily consists of raising money, defending the party on television and organizing the party’s presidential primary contest. Politicians who can actually implement public policy ― presidents, congressional leaders and governors ― wield far more power. However, since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the party has hemorrhaged more than 900 seats in state legislatures while losing control of 12 governorships, the presidency and both the Senate and House of Representatives.
As a result, the DNC race is a major focus of attention for Democratic loyalists. But the next committee chair will be decided not by a popular vote among registered Democrats, but by 447 members of the DNC voting at a Feb. 25 meeting in Atlanta. This group is dominated by state party chairs and political appointees, and overlaps substantially with the superdelegates from the 2016 Democratic primary. Party insiders estimate that roughly two-thirds of the DNC members supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during that race.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was the first politician to declare his bid for the DNC, rolling out a series of high-profile endorsements after Clinton lost the election to Donald Trump in November. Both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have backed him, as have former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his successor, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The nation’s largest federation of labor unions, the AFL-CIO, has also supported Ellison. Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has one of the most consistently progressive voting records in Congress.
His chief rival for the post is Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who served as the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division before joining Obama’s Cabinet. Like Ellison, he’s a favorite of the progressive wing of the party. During his time at DOJ he brought several lawsuits against rogue police departments that ultimately placed the local forces under federal supervision. At the Labor Department, he pushed through key regulations ― including one that dramatically expanded the number of workers eligible for overtime pay, and another requiring investment advisers to manage retirement accounts in the interests of their clients. The Trump administration will likely scuttle both rules, but Perez’s work has earned him the endorsement of a few labor unions.
The core difference between the two men is loyalty faction. Ellison was an early Sanders supporter in the Democratic presidential primary, while Perez worked as a Clinton surrogate on TV and the campaign trail. Ellison has locked up most of Clinton’s institutional base of support in Washington, but much of her national following remains very much in play, and Perez has been all but endorsed by Obama.
Other candidates in the race face slim odds. South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison is a former congressional aide and longtime corporate lobbyist for the Podesta Group, with a list of former clients that will be damaging in a Democratic contest ― coal companies, tobacco firms, too-big-to-fail banks and Walmart. To date, he has been endorsed by the third-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), along with Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and four voting members of the DNC. Harrison served as a director of floor operations for Clyburn before moving into lobbying.
Ray Buckley has served as the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party since 2007, and has overseen a shift in the state’s politics toward Democrats. Both House seats are now filled by Democratic women, as are both Senate seats. Democrats lost the governorship to Republican Chris Sununu in 2016.
Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown and Fox News analyst Jehmu Greene are also running, and will be participating in the debate.
Ellison has all but locked up the Sanders faction of the DNC. Consequently, the real battle for votes is among the Clinton faction. Based on insider estimates of the DNC makeup, Ellison needs to capture at least one-fourth of the Clinton faction to win. If he can’t, the race will likely go to Perez.
Most party operatives expect these latter five candidates to drop out before Feb. 25, and where their early supporters go could well determine the outcome of the election. This gives them opportunities to cut deals with DNC members and the two more viable candidates for other jobs ― vice chair, or one of the other five elected positions in the DNC leadership. If no candidate wins a majority of votes on election day, lower-tier candidates will have another opportunity to direct their supporters to candidates in exchange for concessions from the victor.
As a result of the expected deal-making, just about everybody in the race is bending over backwards to avoid attacking each other ― for now.
Thus far, nobody in the race has charted a path forward for the party beyond vague commitments to better organizing at the state and local level. Ellison has pledged to ban lobbyists from contributing money to the DNC, describing it as a symbolic act signaling the party’s commitment to working people over special interests. Perez has declined to support that pledge, as has Harrison, who argues the party is too hostile to lobbyists.
Ellison also opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration that the Democratic Party’s progressive wing staunchly opposed. Perez supported it, but has since chalked it up to his duties as a member of the Obama administration.
The small scale of the disputes reflects the parochial concerns of voting DNC members. They lament the DNC’s lack of attention or ham-handed communication with state party officials, and frequently cite Obama’s creation of a separate fundraising arm, Organizing for America, as a grave misstep that diverted resources away from party-building. Everyone in the race wants to declare these party officials correct without trashing a popular Democratic president.
These small-bore concerns are dominating the race at a time when much more ambitious conversations are taking place among grassroots activists and left-leaning intellectuals about the future of the Democratic Party. Op-ed pages and Twitter feeds are flooded with fights over the relative weight Democrats should attach to identity politics and economic policy. For many activists, this has become an emotionally charged struggle, although few on either side actually want to abandon the other’s policy priorities. In many ways, the back-and-forth functions as a relitigation of the 2016 primary.
A more sophisticated policy dialogue is emerging among party insiders who don’t want to throw out the Democratic identity message, but do want to craft a more attractive economic platform. In a cover story for Washington Monthly published last week, Barry Lynn, the director of the (centrist) New America Foundation’s Open Markets program, called to redirect the Democratic economic focus toward anti-monopoly policy. He argued that big banks, farm giants, Silicon Valley behemoths and health care titans have stripped communities of economic and political power in nearly every aspect of American life. Taking on corporate titans, Lynn argues, will resonate more with voters than wonky tax tables and charts tracking health care costs.
In a little-noticed Dec. 21 memo, the Obama-and-Clinton-allied Center for American Progress presented a path forward emphasizing anti-corruption efforts and an “economic renewal” agenda. Although most of the policies CAP offered could have been found somewhere in Clinton’s vast 2016 platform, the think tank’s plan included a host of items Democrats have neglected over the past 25 years, including calls to strengthen labor unions, fight monopolies, overhaul trade policy and challenge the role of money in politics.
These are not reappraisals from the radical left ― CAP and New America are both devoutly centrist D.C. think tanks. But it’s not yet clear the DNC wants to float along.
If the DNC race remains a battle to prove who can serve as the most effective, cautious administrative functionary, it will prove as meaningless as most DNC contests usually turn out to be. But if it becomes a genuine debate over ideas, the election could mark the beginning of a significant realignment.
The Huffington Post is hosting a DNC debate on Jan. 18 at the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University, moderated by Editor in Chief Lydia Polgreen and Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim. Follow HuffPost Politics on Facebook to watch it live at 7 p.m. EST. We’ve created petitions below for each of the declared candidates; sign one if you’re a supporter of a particular candidate. We’ll announce the total level of support for each candidate at the beginning of the debate, and again at the end. (You can click through to each to see the current level of support.)
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article indicated that New Hampshire has four seats in the House of Representatives. It has two.