Following a crushing loss in the general election, members of the Democratic Party wasted no time asking how it needs to reshape itself to be stronger going forward. One big decision to be made is on the next Democratic National Committee Chair.
The next DNC chair will have substantial influence over setting the tone for the party’s messaging going forward, in addition to being responsible for the strength and funding of state and local parties. New leadership for the position is one of many changes the party can make to revitalize itself, and it’s an important one.
A little background
The leadership of the DNC came under an unusually bright spotlight during the 2016 election. A series of leaked emails showed that top members of the committee, including then-Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, expressed disdain toward Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the primaries, and even discussed plans to potentially damage the campaign.
Wasserman Schultz quickly resigned, and several top DNC officials followed suit. Donna Brazile has been filling the chair position in the interim between Wasserman Schultz’s resignation and the vote for a new chair, which will take place in late February.
As of the beginning of December, there are three people officially running for DNC chair: Rep. Keith Ellison, South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley.
(Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was in the running, but dropped out on Dec. 2.)
Ellison has generated the most buzz, though his frontrunner status is anything but solid with several months in the race to go. He’s garnered endorsements from the progressive ranks of the party, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
He was one of the first (and relatively few) in Congress to endorse Sanders in the primaries, and if he wins the DNC bid, it would signal a shift left in the Democratic Party.
Ellison, a member of the House of Representatives for Minnesota’s fifth district as well as the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, thinks the party needs to refocus on the working class, a message he thinks was delivered loud and clear in the general election, when Donald Trump won several working-class counties that had voted in favor of President Barack Obama in the previous two elections.
Ellison specified a few things the party needs to do, in his opinion, going forward: strengthen its ground game in states and counties between election years by being present and connected with voters, give labor unions a stronger say in developing the party’s economic positions, reform the superdelegate system, which some felt unfairly benefitted Sec. Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and rely more on small donations to fund the party.
Ellison is facing early controversy over audio of him stating that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is overly determined by the interests of Israel: “A region of 350 million all turns on a country of seven million. Does that make sense?” he said.
The Anti-Defamation League disavowed Ellison over the comment; he responded that the audio was taken out of context and edited, citing his support for aid to Israel in the House and his support of a two-state solution that recognizes rights of both Israelis and Palestinians in the disputed region.
Another potential setback for Ellison is the fact that he hasn’t (as of early December) committed to giving up his seat in the House if he is nominated head of the DNC; some think that the latter position should be a full-time job.
Another contender for the DNC chair position is Jaime Harrison, who, before heading the South Carolina Democratic Party, served as a policy advisor and floor director for James Clyburn, a South Carolina representative and the third-ranking Democrat in the House.
Harrison’s pitch for the DNC position centers on strengthening the organization in states and on the local level. He thinks the party needs to spend more money on local and state parties and elections. And he’s particularly not into what he sees as the party’s tendency to put most of its resources into presidential elections during those cycles at the expense of down-ballot elections.
But concerning the presidential election, Harrison believes that a strong organization across the country is more influential over the outcome than what candidate the party puts forward. He said, “If we build a strong organization, it doesn’t matter if you have a political phenom like a once-in-a-generation Barack Obama or a policy wonk like Hillary Clinton: We will win.”
Harrison also feels that his life experience will make him appealing to young people and the working class. He’s only 40, and he’s working to pay off $160,000 in student loan debt; he describes himself as “a poor black man from South Carolina.” Harrison thinks the party in general needs to focus more on the needs and struggles Americans experience day-to-day, which he calls “bread and butter issues.”
Harrison has expressed openness to having two chairs of the DNC lead it together, suggesting one should be a man and the other, a woman.
Being young and not himself a lawmaker, Harrison is relatively unknown, but that also comes with less baggage in the form of controversy.
And then we have Buckley, who’s been the head of the New Hampshire Democratic Party since 2007 and served as a state legislator for 18 years before that. He’s also one of the DNC’s four vice chairs and the president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.
Like Ellison and Harrison, Buckley emphasizes the need to strengthen the party’s ground game across the country and not lose sight of local and state elections in presidential election years.
Buckley also likes the idea of having two chairs of the party lead together, and has gone into detail about what he thinks that should look like. One chair would act as the “face” of the party and be mostly involved in its messaging, whereas the other would be the “nuts and bolts” chair, who would be in charge of day-to-day operations and strengthening local and state parties.
Buckley’s got more experience with the DNC than the other two candidates in the running by far. Whether DNC members will prefer to pick someone already well-established in the committee or opt for fresh blood in its key leadership position remains to be seen.
The DNC’s choice of leadership in 2017 will indicate whether and to what extent the party is willing to become more like the party Sanders envisioned, or whether its shift will focus more on state and local organizing and less on a fundamental shift in messaging.
Ellison emerged as an early favorite in the DNC chair race, but with two other contenders and plenty of time for more to enter the race, we’ll be left in suspense until February.
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