The fight for the future of the Democratic Party is about to reach a critical point

tom perez jaime harrisonREUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Democrats will choose the next leader of their party Saturday, when they will elect the next chair of the Democratic National Committee at a critical point for the organization and the party as a whole.

The seven candidates for the position have attempted to make their case to the 447 voting DNC members about how to bring the Democratic party out of the electoral wilderness.

The next chair needs a majority of the 447 votes to win.

Though the candidates themselves went to lengths to maintain civility in the months since President Donald Trump’s victory – a pact was created not to campaign negatively – the race has been viewed as a battle between the embattled establishment wing of the party and the emboldened progressive left.

While almost every candidate has emphasized strengthening state parties and broadening the vision beyond winning the presidency, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez has garnered praise and support from some former establishment-type figures, including his former colleagues serving under President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Rep. Keith Ellison’s longtime leftist activism and vocal support during the 2016 Democratic primary for Sen. Bernie Sanders has helped the Minnesota congressman rally grassroots support.

The race appears fluid, as the campaigns have not released public lists of supporters and multiple media outlets have reported wildly different vote counts.

The Hill interviewed dozens of voting members and reported Wednesday morning that Ellison had 105 supporters to Perez’s 57, while The Associated Press spoke to an independent third-party strategist who reported that Perez had 205 committed voters to Ellison’s 153.

The AP reported that South Carolina Democratic party chair Jaime Harrison had 27 committed supporters before he dropped out and endorsed Perez, while South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg had eight, and Idaho Democratic Party chair Sally Boynton Brown had 10. The remaining candidates had no support in the AP’s report.

Staffers from multiple campaigns acknowledged it’s unclear whether a candidate will have enough votes to win on the first ballot. DNC rules stipulate that after the second round of voting, the candidate with the fewest number of votes in each proceeding round is automatically eliminated, consolidating the field.

Here are the main contenders for the chair.

keith ellisonAP Photo/David Zalubowski

Rep. Keith Ellison

Even before Hillary Clinton’s upset loss in the 2016 presidential election, the Minnesota congressman was eyeing the chair post, formally announcing his bid in mid-November with the backing of major party figures.

Ellison scooped up endorsements from some high-profile labor groups, as well as progressive leaders including Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He also locked down vocal Clinton-backers like Sens. Chuck Schumer, Amy Klobuchar, and Chris Murphy, as well as former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Ellison has continued to shore up his progressive bona fides throughout the race, pledging to reinstate a ban on lobbyist contributions to the DNC.

But his bid has faced some roadblocks.

Critics assailed the congressman over his previous statements supporting the Nation of Islam and its anti-Semitic leader. Ellison previously renounced his ties, but nonetheless drew harsh condemnation from prominent Jewish Democrats.

An aide told Business Insider on Thursday that Ellison feels “incredibly confident” about his chances, given a slew of new notable endorsements, including New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Raymond Buckley, who dropped out of the chair race himself and backed Ellison. 

tom perezAssociated Press/Molly Riley

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez

A former labor secretary and deputy attorney general for civil rights, Perez is hoping his executive experience, connection with left-leaning labor and civil-rights groups, and commitment to “making house calls” and fighting voter suppression laws can woo DNC voters.

But Perez has been cast as the establishment pick, partially because of his support from high profile former administration officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Such support has proved to be a double-edged sword, as he’s also been forced to explain his previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the controversial multinational trade pact that drew strong opposition from some labor communities. 

Though Ellison’s high-profile endorsements gave the appearance of early momentum, Perez also appears to have strong support. 

Perez announced last week that he had 180 DNC members supporting his bid, and a campaign staffer told Business Insider on Thursday that he’s gained additional supporters in the past week.

“Going into Atlanta, I’m proud of the broad support we’ve received from every corner of the country. I have spent this past week in one-on-one conversations with DNC members and in larger meetings with state parties discussing how we bring Democrats together, turn our party around, and work together to defeat Donald Trump’s dangerous agenda,” Perez said in a statement Thursday.

pete buttigiegREUTERS/Joshua Roberts

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg has perhaps the most interesting resume of any candidate seeking the chair’s position.

A 35-year-old, Harvard-educated, gay Naval reserve officer who can claim the title Afghanistan veteran and Rhodes Scholar, Buttigieg announced his candidacy in January, casting himself as a third option for Democrats hoping to move past the fight between the left and the establishment. 

“The proxy characterization – I think it’s a little unfair to some of the candidates, but I do think that it’s there, and I think it’s bad for business. We can’t be seen as trapped in that kind of fight,” Buttigieg told Business Insider in January.

He added: “Everyone in this race is progressive, everyone wants to be chair, and wants to be chair in order to defend progressive values. And so we’ve got a way to transcend that divide. We’re always going to be a party just like the other side with people with some diversity of opinion. But we’ve got to keep it together.”

Beyond his appeals to empowering local parties, Buttigieg also highlighted his success at winning elections in the Rust Belt among voters who abandoned the Democratic party for Trump.

The former mayor has racked up a few prominent endorsements, including former chairs Howard Dean and Steve Grossman and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. He has also announced support from a host of mayors.

 

Idaho Democratic Party Chair Sally Boynton Brown

sally boyton brownREUTERS/Joshua Roberts

A long-shot candidate, Boynton Brown has similarly highlighted the loss of connection between the national organization and state parties.

“I really think that we have lost focus as a party. I don’t think we have any overarching identity message. We’ve let the Republicans frame the debate and frame our party for a really long time. And, frankly, I will say that in losing the amount of statehouses that we’ve lost, we’ve also allowed them to legislate,” she told NPR in January.

Brown raised eyebrows in conservative media outlets when she said that her “job is to tell white people when to shut their mouths” when speaking insensitively about race. 

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