This past weekend, in Phoenix, the candidates for the Democratic National Committee’s top jobs met for the first time. Nothing was resolved – and nothing will be until the last week of February – but plenty was learned about the state of the race.
The field in the races for chair and vice chair of the party is more or less settled. (The same’s true of the lower-profile races for secretary and treasurer.) The candidates for the top job are Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Secretary of Labor Tom Perez; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley; South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison; Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown; and party activist/TV commentator Jehmu Greene. That’s everyone who made it to the first forum, conducted Saturday afternoon. Nothing’s stopping other candidates from entering, but to make the ballot for the vote in February, they must be endorsed by at least 20 Democratic National Committee members.
–How do you pronounce “Buttigieg”?
–Who votes on this?
The 437 members of the Democratic National Committee. (Whatever else there is to complain about in this system, at least there’s no chance of a tie.) That number includes every state (and territory and the District of Columbia) party chair and vice chair, as well as every DNC committee member. It does not include governors, senators, congressmen, mayors, etc., unless those people have deigned to become DNC committee members. That means the newsy announcements of endorsements, like Ellison’s support from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Perez’s support from Democratic governors, often have no effect on the DNC race’s math.
–What do they want?
In a word, money. In several more words, a change from the Obama administration’s sloppy, disinterested handling of the DNC. The majority of state parties that are in safely red states, safely blue states, or states that were seen as safely blue until 2016 – like Michigan and Wisconsin, which now famously did not get resources they believed they needed. Every candidate for chair is promising to redirect more cash to state parties and help them become self-sustaining organizations instead of plug-in attachments to presidential campaigns. It’s generally, bitterly understood that this approach was used very well under Howard Dean’s 2005-2009 tenure – and copied effectively by Republicans under Reince Priebus, helping state parties make up the ground lost by a shambling Trump campaign.
–So who’s in the lead for chair?
Honestly? No one, though many DNC members agree that Ellison and Perez are the front-runners unless they do something to disqualify themselves. At this writing, Ellison has 15 public endorsements from actual voting DNC members, Buckley has 10, Harrison has two. But Perez et al. are keeping private whip counts, which show an extremely fluid race but plenty of room to win.
–Is this a replay of the 2016 primary?
Absolutely no one running for the job will say so; Greene, who has the least experience inside the party structure, had her best moment Saturday when she blamed the media for trying to portray the race that way. But there is almost no ideological daylight between the candidates – Ellison, who would be the first black Muslim chairman of a U.S. political party, basically sees eye to eye with Buttigieg, who’s already branded as the heartland candidate.
Still, it doesn’t take a decoder ring to see how the various candidates are playing this. Ellison is running as the “unity” candidate, and in Phoenix, when members of the pro-Sanders union National Nurses United flooded hallways to cheer “unity,” it was clear what they meant. Elect Ellison, signal that the Sanders wing of the party is in control. Perez is viewed warmly by progressives – they have only departed from him when he toed the Obama administration’s line in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But as Perez told me in an interview this week, he’s appealing to Sanders fans one on one by talking about his long progressive record inside the Obama administration, on everything from worker protection to overtime rules to voting rights lawsuits.
Put another way: In 2005, panicked Democratic leaders briefly endorsed former Indiana representative Tim Roemer for DNC chair, explicitly because of fears that the party did not appeal to working-class white voters and religious voters. This year, there is no candidate in the race arguing that the party should shift right or abandon any part of its 2016 platform.
–How much clout do “Berniecrats” have in the party?
Not much, but it’s growing. The weekend before the Phoenix forum, Sanders supporters – organized in part by his post-election campaign group, Our Revolution – flooded the usually-sleepy meetings at which California Democrats elect their delegates. The result, according to Sanders, is that more than half of the party’s ground-level leadership comes from the movement, in a state he famously lost to Hillary Clinton. Our Revolution has been working the states where Sanders did even better, like Colorado, Nebraska and Washington, to put progressives in charge. The problem for Ellison is that the DNC vote will come before this is reflected in the states’ DNC membership.
–That reminds me, what about superdelegates?
That question gets to how disorganized the DNC is in a post-Clinton world. Right before the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the party created a “unity commission” to study whether the party should have superdelegates at all. It was to be composed of nominees from three sources – the Sanders campaign, the Clinton campaign and the DNC itself. At the time, Sanders supporters fully expected a victorious Clinton campaign to put on loyalists who would change the superdelegate system as little as possible. What happened instead was that the Sanders campaign nominated its members – and everything else is in limbo until after the DNC elections.
–And when are the elections?
They’ll take place at the DNC meeting Feb. 22 to 25 in Atlanta. Before that, there will be three more “future forums” – Houston on Jan. 27 and 28, Detroit on Feb. 3 and 4, and Baltimore on Feb. 10 and 11. And there will be at least two more faceoffs between the chair candidates. The next one, sponsored by the Huffington Post, will take place in Washington on Wednesday at 7 p.m., streamed live.