Democratic Factions Jockey to Lead Broken Party

Democratic Factions Jockey to Lead Broken Party
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Facing the harsh reality of becoming the minority party in Washington next year, Democrats return to Capitol Hill this week in search of their soul.

When President Obama leaves the White House in January, Democrats will be without a clear leader. And even though the wounds of an unexpected loss are still raw, party factions are already fighting for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, is expected to announce his candidacy soon. The Minnesota congressman (pictured above) has the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, signaling endorsements from different spectrums of the party. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who will likely play a key role in rebuilding the party, has also expressed support for Ellison.

“We need to invest in the local party unit,” Ellison said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I do believe that we should make the voters first, not the donors first.”

Howard Dean, the DNC chair from 2005 to 2009 who oversaw the party’s successful takeover of Congress and the White House, is also throwing his hat back into the ring. The former Vermont governor ran for president in 2004 on a progressive agenda and focused on expanding the Democrats’ map to all 50 states as party chairman.

Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and presidential candidate, is also in contention. New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley, president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, is considering a bid. “We must do a better job with message and organization,” Buckley said in a statement to RCP. “This is the first open race for DNC Chair in a dozen years. Now is the time for everyone's voice to be heard and respected.”

Labor Secretary Tom Perez and EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, who’s led a successful effort to get women elected to political office, are also mentioned as possibilities.

There is no clear consensus among Democrats on the question of who should lead the party. Many in the party had anticipated they would win the White House and that Republicans would be the ones to have to figure out how to rebuild.

Progressives in the Sanders model would like to see the party absorb the lessons of 2016 by moving further left, becoming more grassroots oriented rather than big-donor reliant. Others believe Donald Trump’s realignment of the electoral map puts more focus on the states and are looking to local party chairs. And some believe an operative or strategist with proven experience in the trenches might be more effective as the party faces a midterm election that could diminish its ranks further.

Some Democrats worry about over-reacting to Tuesday’s election loss when deciding the future of the party, pointing out Clinton won the popular vote and arguing demographics will continue to shift.

And while Ellison has received high-profile endorsements, some Democrats are concerned about a new DNC chair balancing two jobs.

“Agnostic as to who, but Dems should pick a full-time party chair. The job just became infinitely more demanding and important,” presidential adviser and Democratic strategist David Axelrod wrote on Twitter.

Interim Chairwoman Donna Brazile, who took over for Debbie Wasserman Schultz in July after hacked emails released by WikiLeaks indicated she favored Clinton over Sanders for the party's nomination , is not expected to maintain the position. Brazile will likely stay on through February, and is sifting through data and communicating with DNC members to take stock of where the party stands and how it should proceed, according to a Democratic source.

Brazile is respected by DNC members, but has come under her fair share of scrutiny, after additional WikiLeaks email leaks suggested she shared debate questions with the Clinton campaign while a contributor at CNN. The network recently terminated her contract. The Huffington Post reported that one staffer criticized Brazile and her handling of the DNC during their first post-election meeting, blaming her for Trump’s win.

The Democratic soul searching comes not only after a devastating loss at the polls last week, but also as the party has seen its numbers dwindle across the country. While the Democratic Party gained two U.S. Senate seats this cycle, Republicans preserved their majorities in both chambers of Congress. The GOP is poised to expand its Senate majority after the 2018 midterms, when Democrats are defending seats in red states and Rust Belt states that Trump won.

The Democratic ranks have diminished on the local level, too, with the GOP gaining ground in governorships and state legislatures. Since President Obama’s first election, Democrats lost control of the House and Senate, as well as a dozen governors’ houses and roughly 900 state legislative seats. Republicans have trifectas in 24 states, while Democrats have six. 

The selection of a DNC chair will be the first step in deciding how the party wants to rebuild and climb back to power. The person who assumes the role will likely be a key face of the party, shaping the agenda and electoral strategy and raising money.

“People are still coming to grips with what the best direction of the committee should be,” said one Democratic source connected to the DNC, arguing that Clinton’s lead in the popular vote signals the “hearts and minds” of the country are with Democrats. “We have a lot of work to do in terms of winning races, especially in the House.”

While Democrats did not take over the Senate as they had hoped, they found a silver lining in the pickup of two seats: One in Illinois with Tammy Duckworth, a congresswoman and Iraq War veteran, and another in New Hampshire with Maggie Hassan, the soon-to-be-former governor. Democrats lauded Catherine Cortez Masto, who will take Harry Reid’s Nevada seat and become first Latina elected to the Senate.

“Our party demands fresh leadership,” said a Democratic campaign strategist.

One of the leading voices helping to shape the party doesn't officially belong to it. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is harnessing the movement he fomented for the cause of reforming the Democratic Party, and has said he will release a series of proposals in the coming days. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Sanders said the party should break from its corporate establishment ties.

“Donald J. Trump won the White House because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel,” he wrote. “It is no shock to me that millions of people who voted for Mr. Trump did so because they are sick and tired of the economic, political and media status quo.”

Warren has taken a similar approach, telling the AFL-CIO in a speech last week that while she will fight Trump on some items, she is willing to work with him on securing economic opportunities for the middle class.

“If we have learned nothing else from the past two years of electioneering, we should hear the message loud and clear that the American people want Washington to change,” she said. “It was clear in the Democratic primaries. It was clear in the Republican primaries. It was clear in the campaign and it was clear on Election Day. The final results may have divided us -- but the entire electorate embraced deep, fundamental reform of our economic system and our political system.”

Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, saying she warned the Clinton campaign that the Democratic nominee was in trouble in her state. “Clinton and her team didn’t show up until the weekend before the primary, when it suddenly became clear they had a problem,” Dingell wrote. “Sanders was in my district 10 times during the primary. How would any sane person not predict how this one would go? It was fixable for the general election.”

Ellison cautioned early on against dismissing Trump’s appeal and the prospect of his presidency. “Anybody from the Democratic side of the fence ... who is terrified of the possibility of President Trump, better vote, better be active, better get involved, because this man has got some momentum," he told ABC last year. "We had Jesse Ventura win the governorship. Nobody thought he was going to win. I’m telling you, stranger things have happened.”

But Dean believes he can steer the party more successfully than Ellison because he does not currently hold office. “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,” he told MSNBC. “It does not work. This is more than a full-time job.”

Dean said he would focus on cultivating and motivating young voters. Some in the party see Dean as part of the past and seek fresh faces to revive an aging party. Yet Nancy Pelosi is running again for House minority leader and has cleared the field.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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