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A Democratic supporter wears glasses with the partylogo, a donkey, on each glass
Image: picture-alliance/P. Marovich

Why the Democratic National Committee race is a thing

Michael Knigge
February 24, 2017

The unprecedented public attention for the race to lead the Democratic National Committee, a post with limited powers, is a sign of the deep discontent over Donald Trump. It also represents a symbolic shift of the party.


The backdrop:

Heading the Democratic National Committee is usually not a particularly glamorous job.  That is because in the US political system, the national organizations of the two major parties play a rather limited role when compared to those in many other countries.

Instead of the national party, most power rests with local, state and congressional legislators and officials who have considerable legroom in the positions they take and the campaigns they run. The role of the chair of the Democratic National Committee, the nominal party leader in lieu of a president, consists predominantly in helping to raise money, developing a strategy to increase voter turnout and recruiting potential candidates for office.

Given the scope of the position, party leadership races tend to intrigue mostly political wonks rather than be followed closely by the general public. Not this time.

Not only was a debate between eight candidates vying for the job shown live on national TV in the run-up to Saturday's election, but the intense campaign for the post - the most contentious in a long time - has also been covered extensively in the media.   

It arguably all began with the controversial role played by former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz during the party's presidential primary. Wasserman Schultz, who was accused of favoring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, resigned after the party's convention nominated Clinton as the Democratic candidate last year.     

 "I have never seen before this much attention being paid to the race to lead the Democratic National Committee," said Jason Reifler, an American political scientist at the University of Exeter in Britain, who views the phenomenon as an indicator of the anger and opposition triggered by the election and behavior of Donald Trump especially, but not only, among Democrats.

Tom Perez
Tom Perez is supported by centrist DemocratsImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Reynolds

The top candidates:

Two contenders are generally deemed to have the best chance to win the Democratic Party's leadership race. The one is Keith Ellison, an African-American legislator from Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress. The other is Tom Perez, a Hispanic politician from New York who served in the Obama justice department and as secretary of labor.        

That the race appears to boil down between an African-American Muslim and a Hispanic politician is significant in and of it self, noted Adam Ramey, who specializes in American politics at New York University in Abu Dhabi.

"They both represent a symbolic shift for the party and they would be unique in leading the party based on their personal histories," he said, adding that Ellison and Perez would also reflect the changing demographics in the country and the party.

Despite their similarities, Ellison and Perez, according to observers, personify different strands of the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders: Democrats need new direction

"Ellison represents the Sanders wing that argues much more along the lines that Democrats lost because they betrayed their core constituency - working class voters - at the expense of moneyed interests, and that the party needs to change drastically to hope to win," said Ramey.

"Perez," for his part, said Ramey, "whether he would admitted or not or whether he wants to or not, represents a more conciliatory wing that sort of wants to stand up to Trump, but also doesn't want to be too ideologically firebrandish and hopes that this will allow Democrats in the Midwest, the South and in the Mountain West states to be able to win some races in the mid-term elections in the next couple of years."

Because progressive-populists stalwarts Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are backing Ellison, and Perez is being supporting by more centrist-establishment Democrats, the leadership battle has also been portrayed as proxy war between the Sanders-Warren versus the Obama-Clinton camp.

Keith Ellison
Keith Ellison is supported by the Sanders wing of the partyImage: Getty Images/A. Wong

The outcome:

Going into the leadership election, both Ramey and Reifler give Perez an edge over Ellison. 

"If it is a proxy battle between Clinton-Obama supporters and Sanders supporters than I think Perez will win simply because that part of the party is just slightly larger," said Reifler.

"I think Perez has demonstrated himself as the candidate to beat," said Ramey.

But when it comes to assessing the significance of the outcome of the race not just as a bully pulpit to oppose Donald Trump, but for the future direction of the Democratic Party, the scholars hold different views.    

"Once in office I don't think Perez or Ellison will behave very differently," said Reifler, because the position does not have the necessary power to really shape the course of the party. 

"I think this really is a fight for the soul of the party," said Ramey.

"There is a lot of soul-searching going on in the Democratic Party right now with Trump winning the presidency, Congress in the hands of Republicans, the majority of governorships and state legislatures in the hands of Republicans. Whoever wins here is going to be in charge of shepherding the Democrats through the next election cycle and redefining the message they want to use in that cycle."

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