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Tight Race For DNC Chair Narrows Ahead Of Weekend Vote

Tom Perez (left) and Keith Ellison are two front-runners for DNC chair.
Mandel Ngan and Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
Tom Perez (left) and Keith Ellison are two front-runners for DNC chair.

On the eve of the vote for the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, the crowded field is thinning out.

South Carolina Democratic Chair Jaime Harrison dropped out of the race Thursday and endorsed former Labor Secretary Tom Perez. The move comes days after another candidate, New Hampshire Democratic Chair Ray Buckley, exited the race and threw his support to Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

The two withdrawals surely add to Perez and Ellison's vote totals and solidify the two as the front-runners to be the next head of the Democratic Party. Both claim substantial support among the 447 DNC members who will vote for the position on Saturday morning in Atlanta, though neither is predicting a first-ballot majority.

There are still seven candidates, though South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the long shot with the best chance. He's made some waves during the race's final days, getting endorsements from former DNC chairs like Howard Dean and Ed Rendell.

Even with all the last-minute jockeying, the race has a cordial and complimentary vibe, with candidates all but falling over themselves to agree with each other at its many public forums and debates.

"We're all friends up here," Ellison said during a recent candidate forum. "We like each other. We respect each other."

"This is a conversation among siblings as to who should lead the party," Perez recently told Politico.

But if the contest seems breezy, its backdrop does not. Democrats are still reeling from a presidential loss that hardly any party officials saw coming. The party has shed hundreds of statehouse seats over the previous decade, and it is in the minority in both the House and Senate.

On top of that, the DNC has effectively been in a holding pattern since mid-2016, when WikiLeaks published internal emails that led to the ouster of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The emails were likely stolen and provided to WikiLeaks by Russian hackers, according to the CIA and other federal intelligence agencies.

Most of the candidates are vowing to borrow a page from former DNC Chair Howard Dean and spend time and money organizing the party across the country — not just in coastal states where Democrats have solidified their support in recent years.

Many agree the party needs to improve its messaging, especially when it comes to economic issues. "When Donald Trump says, 'I'm going to bring those coal jobs back,' we know that's a lie, but people understand that he feels their pain," Perez said at a recent forum. "And our response was, vote for us because he's crazy. I'll stipulate to that, but that's not a message."

While the candidates are taking pains to appear united — Perez and Ellison were recently photographed having dinner together — many are viewing the DNC race as a proxy for last year's divided presidential primary season.

Much of the party's establishment wing is backing Perez. While former President Barack Obama has stayed out of the race, Perez has been endorsed by close Obama allies like former Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Ellison, on the other hand, touted an early endorsement by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he has attracted support from the more liberal, grass-roots activists in the Democratic Party.

This has been the main narrative of the unusually drawn-out race, but it's not quite that simple. For one thing, Ellison has also been endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, an establishment figure.

The eventual winner will have a lot on his or her plate. In addition to fundraising and reorganizing the DNC, the chair will likely function as one of the party's top surrogates in the media. Howard Dean views something else as the winner's most important job: "coordinating the tremendous rush of young people who are interested in the process, and really weren't much before."

Democrats in all levels of office are processing how to respond to the surge of motivated — and often angry — liberals who have taken to the streets and filled Republican congressional town halls. Engaging those folks in the political process and steering them to the polls in future elections will likely be the key to success for Saturday's winner.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a political correspondent for NPR. He covers the 2020 presidential campaign and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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