Spend any time in Rep. Keith Ellison’s orbit and you’ll hear the congressman or his aides invoke an unofficial motto: campaign like you’re always ten points behind.
Usually, Ellison doesn’t really need to: his Minneapolis district is among the most heavily Democratic congressional districts in the country.
Right now, however, Ellison is campaigning like he’s at least ten points behind — but for another gig. In less than two weeks, 447 Democrats will meet in Atlanta to select the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Ellison’s name is on the ballot.
For months, Ellison has been campaigning around the country in his bid to lead the Democratic Party, out of power and institutionally bereft after a devastating 2016 election and years of neglect.
He faces nine rivals for the post, making this the first truly competitive battle for chair since 1988. That’s a reflection of the deep division within the party over what kind approach will lead Democrats back to prominence and power. It’s also reflective of how important Democrats anticipate the job of chair will be in this new era, one without an obvious public face for the Democratic Party.
Could it be Ellison?
Contest’s roots in bitter Sanders-Clinton primary
The race for DNC chair has its origins in the 2016 Democratic primary, where simmering dissatisfaction over the performance of the last chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, came to a head.
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders believed Wasserman Schultz influenced the primary process to benefit Hillary Clinton. That belief was confirmed when hacked emails revealed Wasserman Schultz and DNC aides brainstorming ways to undermine Sanders, forcing her resignation on the eve of the party convention in July.
In the months between the convention and the election, Ellison began laying the groundwork for a campaign for DNC chair. A week after the GOP victory that sent Donald Trump to the White House and maintained Republican majorities in Congress, Ellison formally announced his candidacy.
Ellison, who was a prominent campaign surrogate for Sanders and then for Clinton, was considered an immediate front-runner, and that status was cemented as other high-profile Democrats, like former chair Howard Dean, declined to run.
Loyalists of Barack Obama, however, made no secret of their efforts to recruit another candidate to run. They found one in Tom Perez, Obama’s Secretary of Labor, who announced his bid about a month after Ellison did.
Ellison and Perez are undoubtedly the top two candidates. But there are other serious candidates: Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Jaime Harrison, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, are younger candidates who have been received positively by activists; Raymond Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, and Jehmu Greene, a Democratic strategist, are running as well.
How the DNC vote works
In the past few months, Democrats have had to go to school on how their chair gets elected: the lack of a competitive race in recent history means the process hasn’t been deeply scrutinized in some time.
To win, a candidate needs 224 yes votes, a simple majority of the 447-member voting body of the DNC. On February 25 in Atlanta, they will vote as many times as needed until one candidate reaches that number, with the lowest-performing candidate dropped from each ballot.
The politics of getting to 224, though, are far more complicated. Though candidates have participated in several public forums and done plenty of national press, the race is really won in personal phone calls and in-person pitches to voting members of the DNC, who are scattered around the country — and the world, in some cases.
The process is described as akin to running a national campaign in which just 447 people can vote.
So, who gets a vote? Close to half of those who will cast a ballot are rank-and-file committee members, who are elected by Democratic Party organizations in the 50 states, D.C., and territories, with votes apportioned by population. California, for example, has 19 voting members in this category. (Minnesota has eight votes, total.)
The chair of each state party votes, along with the highest-ranking state party officer of the opposite sex, representing a bloc of 100 votes. Seventy-five “at-large” delegates, who were nominated by Wasserman Schultz and approved by members, are given votes.
Those three groups constitute the majority of DNC votes. But top Democratic leaders get votes as well: leaders of Democratic-affiliated groups such as College Democrats of America and the Federation of Democratic Women will vote, as will elected officials like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
These groups don’t behave like blocs, necessarily. Those involved think about the voter pool in terms of an individual voter’s geographic ties, affiliations with outside groups like organized labor, and personal political allegiances — all of which can play a role in deciding who they vote for.
No clear front-runner
At this point, the conventional wisdom is that neither Ellison nor Perez are close to the 224-vote threshold, and either could plausibly come out on top after the votes are cast. If there’s a deadlock between the two, it could open a door for a compromise candidate to win, perhaps Buttigieg, according to the New York Times. (Perez’s campaign claimed on Tuesday it had locked up 180 votes; Ellison’s campaign disputes that.)
But Ellison’s camp is confident that their early start has given them an edge, locking up some voters before Perez even entered the race. And Ellison has raised close to $1 million for his bid, which has been useful in gathering data and sending staffers to court delegates around the U.S. (Perez raised over $800,000 through the end of January.)
Former Minneapolis mayor and outgoing DNC vice chair R.T. Rybak just completed a swing through western states to rally support among delegates for Ellison.
“My perception is that Keith’s a little ahead,” Rybak told MinnPost, but added that there’s plenty of support for Perez as well as Buttigieg and Harrison. “I think anybody who says they know exactly where the race is is exactly wrong,” he said.
In the absence of polling or any concrete metrics, the endorsements that Ellison and Perez have collected give an idea of the temperature of the race and what kind of constituencies are backing them.
Both candidates have rolled out endorsements from hundreds of Democratic politicians on the federal, state, and local levels, along with labor unions, advocacy groups and party leaders.
Ellison has a trio of important backers in the U.S. Senate that give him progressive and establishment cred: Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren support him, along with Schumer, the current de facto Democratic leader.
He’s also notched endorsements from key unions like AFL-CIO, the unions for federal, state, and local government employees, and the American Federation of Teachers. Minnesota has rallied around Ellison, as he’s picked up endorsements from Gov. Mark Dayton, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and Vice President Walter Mondale.
Perez, meanwhile, has drawn substantial support from his former Obama administration colleagues. Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder, Perez’s onetime boss, endorsed him; he’s also backed by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chair and a close Clinton ally.
Though he has strong labor ties, Perez has fewer endorsements from unions: his two key supporters are the United Farm Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Clinton-Sanders round two?
Ellison and Perez’s respective endorsements reflect the most publicized, and juiciest, element of the DNC race: the widely-held belief that it’s a proxy fight between the Sanders-Warren wing of the party and the Clinton-Obama wing.
The public debate over the race has been dominated by ideology — namely, whether Ellison’s brand of unapologetic progressivism should be at the center of the Democratic Party, or whether it should be Obama-Clinton liberalism, represented by Perez.
Though Perez is considered a staunch progressive, and he has taken few opportunities to position himself as a moderate versus Ellison, a reason for his recruitment was Ellison’s status as a top figure of the party’s far left.
The next DNC head is expected to be the Democrats’ most prominent public face. As the party tries to rebuild support in rural America, Obama-aligned Democrats believed Ellison’s politics, along with his past as a radical with ties to the Nation of Islam, would sink that mission.
Supporters of Ellison counter that Democrats lost — and lost in rural and Rust Belt America in particular — because they abandoned economic populism for a data and demographics-driven approach.
They feel Obama and his allies are partly responsible for the mess the party’s in now: from 2008 to 2016, Democrats hemorrhaged over 1,000 federal and state offices, lost control of both chambers of Congress, and lost a presidential election to Donald Trump.
Critics say this could have been avoided if the Obama camp had leveraged its powerful grassroots network for something beyond the president’s own electoral success. This sentiment has led to skepticism of Perez’s own DNC bid, Politico reported last week.
According to Rybak, the wounds from the primary are healing but have still led to hard feelings here and there. Still, he says, “from my experience talking to [delegates], they’re less concerned with the national narrative around old rivalries from primaries and much more concerned with the tactical issues.”
“I am thrilled this has been a positive, uplifting campaign,” he added.
Making Democrats win again
Indeed, Ellison and Perez have taken pains to avoid going after each other, steering clear of past conflicts and ideology and framing the DNC race as a passionate debate among family.
In practice, the chair’s personal politics take a back seat at the DNC job, which is almost entirely focused on organizing, fundraising, and administration.
In that sense, there’s not a lot of daylight between Ellison and Perez. Both agree that the party has grown too D.C.-centric and overly focused on the top of the ticket. Both say that the heart of the party is the grassroots, which means increased authority must go to local Democratic officials, and less in the hands of Beltway central leadership.
Both talk often about reducing barriers to voting and increasing Democratic voter turnout, recruiting stronger candidates, and competing in every part of the country, even areas Democrats have long written off.
When asked what he’d do differently than Perez as chair, Ellison said that was “unknowable.”
“I have not done a side by side with his plan and mine, so I don’t know,” Ellison said. But with both candidates professing nearly the same goals, Ellison would prefer the contest to be a referendum on qualifications — something his camp sees as a clear advantage.
Ellison and his aides speak often of his get-out-the-vote program, which made the 5th District, Minnesota’s lowest-turnout district when Ellison took office, its highest-turnout district in later years. His camp credits it with providing the margins that kept Minnesota blue in 2016.
Perez, meanwhile, has held elected office once, as a member and then president of the council of Montgomery County, an affluent county across the D.C. border in Maryland. His highest-profile offices have been in the Obama administration as Labor Secretary and, before that, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Department of Justice.
Ellison’s pitch is clear: pick him, and Democrats will win again.
Perez and himself, Ellison said, are both trying to win elections for Democrats. “Only I’ve done it. I’ve won seats. The job of the DNC chair is to win seats for Democrats.”
If Ellison always campaigns like he’s ten points behind, a victory in this chair race means he will take the reins of a party that’s far more than ten points behind.
On his day one to-do list? Navigate an awful 2018 U.S. Senate map for Democrats, dramatically improve recruitment for U.S. House races, win redistricting battles in dozens of states, restore the party’s health on state, county, precinct levels.
Until then, MinnPost found Ellison and his team in their campaign war room on Capitol Hill, doing the work they must to do to win this race. As staffers pored over spreadsheets and prepared for trips to meet delegates — one was about to set off for Alaska — Ellison sat in a small office.
“This race is about, will the Democratic Party rededicate to working with, and fighting for, working Americans?” Ellison said, between phone calls.
“To me, what the Democratic Party has been about over the last eight years is relying on analytics and TV and going to swing states. We’re going to smash that model.”