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Democrats' new regime may forever change the face of the party

Candidates vying to lead the Democratic Party out of the void it was thrust into after November’s election are entering the final stretch of a battle over the party’s future that has raged since Sen. Bernie Sanders presented an unexpectedly formidable challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primaries.

The top candidates for chair of the Democratic National Committee will participate in a live debate hosted by CNN on Wednesday night, shining an unusually bright spotlight on a race that has rarely been this hotly contested.

The 447 voting members of the DNC will cast their votes in Atlanta Saturday for what many observers see as a proxy fight between the progressives who backed Sanders and the party establishment that supported President Obama and Clinton.

“You can see that they’re struggling with the idea, do they hew to traditional Democratic norms or do they break further to the left,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

Sanders threw his support behind Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim member of Congress, early on, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and progressive favorite Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Tom Perez, Obama’s former labor secretary, has the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Though Ellison and Perez are the clear frontrunners, other candidates include South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Idaho Democratic Party leader Sally Boynton Brown, and former president of Rock the Vote Jehmu Greene.

On Wednesday, former DNC Chair Howard Dean endorsed the 35-year-old Buttigieg, citing his youth and “outside-the-beltway” perspective.

Perez took to Twitter Wednesday afternoon to directly answer questions from followers, leading the hashtag #AskTomPerez to trend for a while. He has emphasized that he intends to stay engaged and active in uniting the party regardless of whether he wins.

Ellison received a perhaps unwanted signal boost from President Donald Trump, who tweeted Wednesday that the Minnesota congressman was one of the few who predicted his presidential victory from the start.

Democratic strategist Matt McDermott rejected the “Sanders versus Obama” paradigm as a way of understanding the DNC race.

“It makes for a convenient media story, but it's clear in talking to actual DNC voting members that this isn't at all a proxy for different ‘wings’ of the party, or for that matter a rehash of the 2016 primary,” he said. “It's a Baskin Robbins slate of candidates: you might prefer a flavor, but at the end of the day it's all still ice cream.”

Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a PAC that supported Sanders and has endorsed Ellison, observed that the candidates’ support does not break down along such convenient lines.

“That requires ignoring the support that Keith Ellison has gotten…from lots of people that supported Hillary Clinton in the primary,” he said.

According to Sroka, the DNC race is about setting the direction for the party and sending a message about how inviting it is to those who have not been active before.

“It’s not a battle between the establishment and the outsiders,” he added.

Some Sanders supporters do see it as a test of the senator’s influence, though, and they have warned of a backlash if Ellison does not win.

“If Tom Perez were to win, the message that would send to the grassroots, to labor unions that endorsed Ellison before Tom Perez joined the race, [is] that their voices, their muscle, their enthusiasm and turnout doesn’t matter,” Alex Lawson of Social Security Works told the Huffington Post.

Sroka does not share that fatalistic view, believing instead that the takeover of the party by the grassroots is inevitable and the new leadership will determine how smoothly and quickly that transition happens.

“Regardless of who becomes DNC chair, the energy and intensity that you’ve seen within the burgeoning resistance movement will continue to happen,” he said.

Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and adjunct at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, said the next DNC chair will have to treat it as a full-time job, potentially a challenge for sitting congressman Ellison.

“I’m just not sure the Democrats realize what deep trouble they’re in yet,” he said. The party only has full control of government in six states and it keeps losing state legislator seats across the country. With redistricting set to follow the 2020 elections, they need to retake those seats quickly.

Whether embracing Sanders’ democratic socialism and progressive populism is the best path to doing so is debatable, but Nordlinger said there is a faction of the party that supports his vision passionately.

Although Sanders officially remains an independent, he has taken on a larger role in the messaging and strategy of the Democratic Party. As outreach leader for Senate Democrats, he and Schumer spearheaded an effort to organize more than 100 rallies against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act this Saturday.

Sanders Schumer Letter by Stephen Loiaconi on Scribd

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Sanders allies have aggressively sought leadership positions in the party on the state and local level across the country. They won more than half of the delegate slots for the California state party convention and they have taken top spots in the state parties in Hawaii, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

Not everyone sees Sanders’ influence as a positive development. Some Democrats worry that his supporters will drag the party too far to the left to appeal to swing voters in close congressional races that they need to win in 2018. There are already threats of primary challenges against incumbents in Congress who do not oppose Trump sufficiently from a super PAC co-founded by former Sanders campaign staffers.

“Democrats must know there is a price for collaborating with Trump,” states the website of We Will Replace You. “Any Democrats who would give legitimacy or support to Trump do not represent us and must be replaced by people who will stand up for our lives, our values, and our democracy.”

Other former Sanders aides, believing progressives have been shut out by the establishment, are backing an effort to draft the Vermont senator into a third party alternative to the Democrats.

Handing control of the DNC to Ellison could mollify some Sanders holdouts skeptical of the party apparatus, but the Minnesotan brings baggage of his own to the table. Republicans have attacked him for past comments defending Louis Farrakhan and his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Which one do you think Republicans are cheering for: a former Farrakhan acolyte who has the support of Bernie Sanders or Tom Perez?” said Republican strategist O’Connell.

With Democrats still trying to grasp how they lost the November election, he said putting Ellison at the helm could be a gift to Trump as the president struggles to find his own footing in Washington.

“The Republicans are going, ‘Please Keith Ellison,’” O’Connell said.

While there is a danger of the progressive wing of the party pulling Democrats too far off-center, Nordlinger said they also have to worry about appearing reflexively and unreasonably anti-Trump.

“I think their bigger risk is forever alienating the Trump working class white… When these people hear the constant criticism of Trump, they absolutely hear that as criticism of themselves,” he said.

The DNC candidates have laid out similar plans for the party, most referring back to the “50 state strategy” that Dean successfully pursued a decade ago. They are emphasizing the importance of local elections and building up the infrastructure of the party on the state level with a compelling message.

While they all seem to want to move the party in the same direction, Sroka said what separates Ellison from others is how drastic of a course-correction they think it will require.

“The fight for DNC chair is really a fight about whether or not you think there needs to be big structural changes to how the party builds support among the grassroots,” he said. Ellison wants fundamental change, but other candidates seek “some tweaks around the edges.”

According to McDermott, one of the priorities for the new chair will be reestablishing trust between the establishment and the understandably distrustful progressive base.

“Progressive influencers are motivated, and taking action, but they don’t see identification with the party as a key way to ensure their voice is heard,” he said. “Moving forward, the party needs to ensure these influencers feel like it is speaking and acting in a way that reflects their own voice and is standing up to Trump.”

O’Connell suggested that is where Sen. Sanders may be most helpful to the Democratic Party.

“Sanders has a valuable role to play with respect to the progressive wing of the party that doesn’t feel like they have a true spokesman,” he said.

However, he cautioned that if Democrats want to emulate the success of the Tea Party, they will need a “starburst moment” to unite them like the passage of the Affordable Care Act did for Republicans. Trump’s victory alone will not accomplish it, and counting on him to fail cannot be their strategy.

“If you’re betting your future on a guy in power being his own worst enemy, you’ve got some serious issues.”

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