Hundreds of top Democrats newly energized by Donald Trump’s presidency will gather in Atlanta this week to elect a new leader, a vote that will set the course for the party’s future and the stage for the 2018 midterm elections.
The fight over the party chairmanship has all the makings of a repeat of the bruising Democratic primary, where an establishment-backed Hillary Clinton squared off against Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign from the party’s left flank.
This time, Sanders and other leaders in the party’s progressive wing are backing U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC chairman, while former U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has support from allies of Clinton’s and former President Barack Obama’s.
But others in the crowded field of 10 candidates are trying to establish themselves as the best able to harness the wave of liberal activism that’s erupted in protests and town hall meetings after Trump’s inauguration and turn it into concrete electoral action.
In part because of the burgeoning field, no candidate yet has a lock on the majority of the 447 committee members needed to win. What is for certain, though, is the winner won’t shy away from joining the “resistance” movement against the president.
All the leading contenders for the seat have pledged to defy Trump. They have also vowed, in one way or another, to pump more money into a 50-state strategy and rebuild a party infrastructure that’s been decimated in the past four election cycles.
The vote will surely resonate in Georgia, where state party leaders are wrestling with some of the same strategic divides the national party is: Should they appeal to disenchanted Republicans and moderates skeptical of Trump in next year’s election or cater to left-leaning voters already likely to support them?
Not surprisingly, the decision has also split many top Georgia Democrats. Most of the state’s establishment wing has endorsed Perez, including the state party’s top two officials, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and her successor, Kasim Reed.
“Tom understands the critical issues facing Democrats in their fight against a dangerous Republican agenda that has endangered American voting rights and pursued discriminatory legislative redistricting which leaves many citizens without an equal voice in their government,” Reed said in his endorsement.
Lining up behind Perez’s top rival are state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Sanders supporter and candidate for Atlanta mayor, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who became a face of the opposition to Trump when he boycotted his inauguration and questioned the legitimacy of his presidency.
“As Democrats, we must seek a leader who has demonstrated the ability to continue the fight to protect all that we hold dear as a nation,” Lewis said. “Keith is ready to take on the fight, and I am proud to stand with him.”
With no candidate likely to win it outright in the first round of balloting, a few fresh-faced second-tier contenders hope to make a late charge. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has support from two former DNC chairmen – and a knack for going after the top two contenders.
“Why not go with somebody who isn’t a product of one faction or another faction, but somebody who is here to deliver the fresh start our party needs,” Buttigieg said at a recent party forum.
Also in the mix is South Carolina party Chairman Jaime Harrison, who wants to wage an all-out war on the GOP.
“Republicans don’t cede any territory to us,” he said in an interview. “Look at Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine — what do they have in common? Republican governors. Democrats have to take a page of that playbook. If we do that, it will pay dividends.”
His campaign, in particular, focuses on areas of the country he said were long neglected by the national party.
“The party has failed in the South and in some states in the West, too,” he said. “A million dollars in South Carolina goes a long way. It will help build these regions up, because right now we’re ceding that ground and territory.”
Howard Dean, who won the party’s 2005 chairman race and now works for the mega-law firm Dentons, said not to count out an upset victory by a long-shot candidate.
“My generation is done in politics here,” he told NBC News. “We need to get out of the way.”
About the Democratic National Committee meeting:
The DNC Winter meeting will be held Thursday to Saturday at the Westin Peachtree. Over that time, the DNC members will participate in caucus meetings, training events and strategy sessions. The highlight is a Saturday vote for party chairman and other leaders.
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