Fight erupts among Democrats for control of party in crisis
Swept from power, Democratic leaders in Washington and the states are increasingly nervous that the best-case scenario fight for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee will be a long, ugly redux of the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders primary.
But an even broader, more vicious factional scramble may be looming.
A group of high-profile liberals and establishment figures is moving swiftly to nip such a tussle in the bud by coalescing around Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison — who has not formally announced his bid, but who appears prepared to on Monday after receiving backing from Sanders, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, progressive groups like MoveOn.org, and kind words from Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But a former chairman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — a Clinton backer and serious Sanders critic during the primary who is a favorite of state party chairs due to his pioneering a 50-state strategy that would empower them — also jumped into the race on Thursday, making the picture far less straightforward.
Meanwhile others in the party, including New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman and DNC vice chair Raymond Buckley — who runs the Association of State Democratic Chairs — South Carolina Chairman Jaime Harrison, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra are said to be open to bids of their own, fielding calls from other DNC members about their interest. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said on Friday morning that he is considering a run. DNC vice chair R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis
who nearly got the role under Barack Obama, and retiring New York Rep. Steve Israel — a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair — are also in the mix.
“There’s going to be a fight of progressives versus the moderates, which, to be honest, is what got us into this place in the first place,” predicted former senior DNC official Mo Elleithee, now the executive director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University. “The left versus right versus center doesn’t exist anymore."
The fight goes even further.
“The idea that after everything we just went through, that the D.C. Democrats are literally, apparently, already —without anyone else even knowing what the heck the plan is — saying, ‘This is the person,’ I think is a terrible look,” said one state party chairman. “I’m glad these conversations are happening with someone, but it’s not [yet among] a broad enough group of people.”
Even proponents of Ellison — a Sanders backer during the primary who then went out of his way to support Clinton after ringing the anti-Donald Trump alarms early — acknowledge that an ugly fight is likely, despite the backing from Schumer, suddenly the de facto highest-ranking Democrat in Washington in the post-Clinton, post-Obama era.
The DNC member vote for the next chair — a role that traditionally matters due to its centrality in fundraising and setting strategy for the party, though not necessarily as Democrats’ ideological leader — was expected to come the day after President-elect Clinton’s inauguration in January, and it was expected to be a pro forma move for Clinton’s pick for the role. But due to the former secretary of state’s shocking loss, it is likely to be moved to February or March, multiple Democrats familiar with the initial planning told POLITICO.
That sets the stage for at least two full months of campaigning that will come amid recriminations and finger-pointing after the party’s defeats on Tuesday, which saw it lose not only the White House while Republicans kept the Senate and House, but also saw its hold slip to just 16 governorships while the GOP built on its own advantage in state legislatures.
“You typically look for three things when you’re looking for a chair. A good fundraiser, a good messenger and someone who can focus on infrastructure,” explained Elleithee, advocating a wholesale reimagining of the committee’s role as soon as possible before the coming redistricting that could reshape the party for a generation. “President Trump will be the best fundraiser the DNC will ever have. So let’s focus on the other two."
And the race comes at a critical inflection point for the DNC, which is itself deeply unpopular among die-hard Sanders supporters who feel validated by Clinton’s loss and are still furious with the institution and past chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz for her stewardship of the primary. At an all-staff meeting on Thursday a junior staffer even publicly confronted interim chair Donna Brazile — who is expected to step aside — over the committee’s role in the Clinton-Sanders fight, shocking the already upset staffers in the room. Operatives there, unsure of what to do it in a post-Clinton era, are split over who the next chair should be and were stunned by the disruption. At the same time, prominent Democrats are sprinting to step into the sudden vacuum as the party’s ideological or spiritual — not mechanical — leader: Warren’s quickly arranged address at the AFL-CIO on Thursday was clearly intended to do just that, while other Democrats warn that the DNC race is just a proxy for the broader fight: “model U.N.,” in the words of one former governor.