As Democrats head to Atlanta this weekend to vote on their party’s next chair, the race to lead the Democratic National Committee chair is coming down to its two leading candidates.
Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.) has the edge over former Labor secretary Tom Perez in The Hill’s new survey of DNC members. But while both men claim they are close to securing commitments from the majority of the 447 voting members, neither candidate is assured victory.
Out of those who responded, Ellison leads with 105 supporters to Perez’s 57. The remaining major candidates have less than a dozen supporters each, while more than 50 DNC members remain undecided.
It’s possible that a mass movement by undecided voters or a broad change-of-heart could push either candidate to the 224-vote threshold for a first-ballot victory, but it appears likely the race will head to multiple rounds.
The vote will take as many ballots as needed for a candidate to cobble together a majority. After the second round of balloting, the candidate with the lowest vote total will be removed from subsequent ballots until one candidate emerges with a majority.
“Whoever is going to win is likely going to win on multiple ballots,” said Mo Elleithee, a former DNC spokesman who now heads Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
“All of the public posturing, the big endorsements—none of that matters. It all comes down to the 447 voting members, and they want to know who is going to be able to rebuild the infrastructure of the DNC. Whoever can best walk into this weekend answering that question...walks in with an advantage.”
Ellison, the progressive Minnesota congressman, emerged as the early leader with the backing of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn California race, social justice wing of Democrats finally comes of age Sanders to headline progressive 'People's Summit' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s coalition as well as an impressive slate of elected official endorsements from across the party. Ellison’s backers include Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDem senators press ethics office over Ivanka Trump's role Government Accountability Office will review Mar-a-Lago security procedures Dems debate working with GOP on consumer bureau revamp MORE and Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles SchumerGOP strategist: Trump's dealmaking mojo 'went over like a fart in a hurricane' McConnell: ObamaCare 'status quo' will stay in place moving forward NRA launches M Supreme Court ad MORE.
But Perez, the former Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPoll: Most Republicans believe Trump's wiretap claim Key conservative rep on healthcare plan: 'Let’s get out those regulations’ Trump climate move risks unraveling Paris commitments MORE administration Labor secretary who jumped in a month after Ellison, has cobbled together an impressive list of his own. His endorsers include former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral Biden: I regret not being president Biden: 'McCain is right: Need select committee' for Russia MORE and former Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderUber donates M to supporting minorities in tech Overnight Tech: Senate moving to kill FCC's internet privacy rules | Bill Gates pushes for foreign aid | Verizon, AT&T pull Google ads | Q&A with IBM's VP for cyber threat intel Uber leadership sticking by CEO MORE.
Between them, Ellison and Perez have far and away the most support. Ellison leads Perez as far as public support from DNC members, while each campaign claims that their private whip lists promise even more votes.
Perez emailed DNC members last week to claim that 180 DNC members had backed him, while Ellison’s camp responded that they “are on track to win."
None of the candidates have released their full whip list, a move that keeps pressure off their supporters.
"We are confident in the support Tom has received and are working hard every day to have one on one conversations with state parties and DNC members," Perez spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said.
"Many of our supporters have requested that we not release their names publicly due to fear of unwanted calls and other harassment. We believe these members deserve our respect."
Many Democrats sing the praises of both men. Perez is a son of immigrants who went on to play a role in many of the Obama administration’s top domestic priorities. Ellison, meanwhile, is a progressive leader in the House and first Muslim elected to Congress who became one of Sanders’s top surrogates on the campaign trail.
Both candidates also lead The Hill’s poll of second-choice preferences, suggesting that a lack of enmity between the two DNC factions.
Still, the frontrunners’ political differences have hardened some Democrats and liberal groups outside of the official DNC structure, frustrating the party’s attempt to move on from the fissure of the 2016 primary even as both frontrunners try to tamp down the idea of a rift.
Some Ellison allies have railed against Perez as a symbol of the establishment’s hold over the party. After Biden endorsed Perez, Sanders put out an unsolicited statement panning Perez and Biden as part of the “failed status quo.”
Other Perez supporters have expressed concern about handing the party over to the Sanders wing of the party, arguing that Ellison would move the party too far to the left.
“They’ve done a good job, to their credit, pretending the proxy war doesn’t exist and they’ve been respectful of one another,” one former Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonRoger Daltrey: 'Dead dog' would have beaten Clinton Clinton targets Trump in speech, urging supporters to 'resist, insist, persist, enlist' Clinton defends April Ryan, Rep. Maxine Waters in speech MORE presidential staffer told The Hill. “But let’s call it what it is.”
“It’s not hard to see if Perez wins the race, having a whole portion of the party that feels like, ‘Here the Washington insiders go again, appointing an Obama and Hillary guy.’”
So while Perez or Ellison are the frontrunners, a small but increasing number of Democrats suspect that a consensus alternative candidate could emerge to sidestep the factionalism.
“Watch the middle,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, who worked on Howard Dean’s political campaigns before Dean took over the DNC in 2005.
“What you have are two strong, well-established candidates, each of whom represent factions of the Democratic Party, and in this case they are factions that aren’t at war but don’t see eye to eye. In those cases, you often see candidates who can unite the middle.”
Another Democrat added that the more entrenched Perez and Ellison supporters become, the more likely that they would rather jump behind a compromise candidate instead of crossing into their rival candidate’s camp.
Among the lagging candidates who have billed themselves as the consensus pick— South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown— Buttigieg has earned recent buzz from Democrats who spoke with The Hill.
The openly gay Buttigieg has a sterling resume. He’s a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, a Navy Reserve lieutenant and a Democratic mayor in a red state at just 35-years old. And he’s won support from a handful of former DNC chairs over the past few weeks, as well as praise from former DNC chair Howard Dean.
“He checks a lot of boxes, but it’s not just that. He understands what has gone awry over the past 10 years and...he understands what it takes to get stuff done in the states. He’s lived all the things he supports,” the former Clinton staffer said.
“But it would take a total standoff between Ellison and Perez.”
Harrison, a former top aide to then House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (S.C.), is also expressing confidence that he’ll be able to rely on his congressional whip experience and work leading the South Carolina Democratic Party to score an upset. And Boynton Brown is relying on a similar red-state success pitch from her time in Idaho to boost her outside shot.
Former Fox News commentator Jehmu Greene is also running, as are a few other lesser-known candidates. But none of them have garnered any significant support among voting members.
After the balloting Saturday, the party and its new leader will have to focus on the task at hand: the rebuilding of the party and the fight against President Trump.
Regardless of how the election turns out, Democrats appear confident that the party’s dire situation will serve as a unifying force.
“I suspect what will help unite people is less which side of the discussion they fell on, and more a desire to resist Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRoger Daltrey: 'Dead dog' would have beaten Clinton Christie joins Trump's opioid task force: 'This is an epidemic' President shows disregard to environment with executive actions on climate change MORE and take back the House and the Senate,” said one DNC member who’s backed Perez but who would vote for Ellison as his second choice.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend and I think Donald Trump will have a more dramatic effect at unifying Democrats than anyone in the DNC.”
--Lisa Hagen, Aida Chavez, Sara Sirota and Chase Masters contributed.