Party officials are dusting off their rulebooks and scouring the Democratic National Committee charter and bylaws in preparation for the first DNC election since Democrats last lost the White House, in 2004.

DNC officials have received little guidance from the national party so far about how the election will unfold. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, the DNC secretary, has sent an email to party members with only a broad set of guidelines.

{mosads}There is no set date for the election, which is required to take place some time before March 31, 2017. Officials are hopeful that a DNC executive committee meeting in mid-December will provide clarity, although the race will be in full swing by then.

The first big test for those running will come in two weeks, when the candidates meet with state party leaders at the national gathering of Democratic chairmen in Denver.

The state chairs and vice chairs represent the power center in the election due to their numbers and their proximity to the scores of DNC state officials below them that will also be voting.

A simple majority of DNC members, or 224 votes, is needed to win.

About a quarter those voting — 112 — are chairs or vice chars from the 50 states and six territories. An additional 200 are elected below them at the state level, turning the contest into a true national election that will unfold outside of Washington.

In 2005, the Association of Democratic Chairs effectively sealed the deal for former DNC Chairman Howard Dean by choosing him in a straw poll. He is running again in 2016 and could be in a good position to work that same system in his favor. 

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a rising party star, remains the early favorite. But opposition to the idea of a part-time chairman after the divisive tenure of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) could sink his chances.  

The fight to become the next chairperson is already breaking along racial, state, and establishment versus grassroots lines. The candidates and potential candidates are passing around opposition research on one another, signaling a tough fight ahead.

Their ranks are growing by the day. The field could swell to a half-dozen candidates or more, lifting the spirits of Democrats who are eager to see a robust debate.

“That’s a damn good place to be,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the Democratic chairman of Texas.

All 447 DNC members will have a vote in the contest, which will serve as the first fight for a party trying to decide how to navigate the Donald Trump era after a disastrous election for the party.

Debate is raging over whether the party should tap an African-American, a Hispanic, a woman, someone from the LGBT community, an accomplished fundraiser, a progressive, an experienced manager, or someone who vows to make the position their full-time job.

Party chairmen are huddling with DNC officials in their states to strategize. Many are urging their members to resist backing a candidate at this stage and some are discussing whether their state delegations should try to vote as a unit.

Dean remains well-regarded by party chairmen for his work atop the DNC in the 2000s. His “50-state strategy” remains the gold standard for the DNC among many Democrats, who credit him with laying the groundwork for the party’s electoral success in 2008.

And Dean is committed to making the position of DNC chairman his only full-time job.

“I can’t imagine how another sitting member of Congress could do it,” one DNC official told The Hill. “The people viewed as having done the best job for the party have functioned as full-time chairman.” 

Ellison — who is black and the first ever Muslim member of Congress — insists the division of duties would not be a problem for him.

He launched his bid this week with a power-packed rollout, punctuated by endorsements from leading progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). There is a strong sense that the incoming DNC chairman should hail from the ascendant left wing of the party.

Ellison also has the support of the state chairmen in Wisconsin, Hawaii, Nebraska, and his home state of Minnesota. Those endorsements could prove pivotal.

But it’s his endorsements from Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), as well as other lawmakers in Washington, that are rubbing some the wrong way.

Many DNC officials blame those leading the party for the 2016 electoral disaster and are eager to see Washington’s power brokers stay out of the fight completely.

“I’m not particularly moved by who Reid or Schumer want to be the chair,” said Glen Maxey, a DNC official from Texas. “Glen Maxey ain’t voting for nobody because they told me to.”

Many also want to see a contest to avoid a repeat of the presidential primaries, when party leaders got behind Hillary Clinton before the activist base could weigh in.

“I want to see how things play out,” said Washington state Democratic chairman Jaxon Ravens. “ I want to see all of the pieces on the table before making a decision.”

Some Hispanics are fuming, believing the party is ignoring their ranks. Outgoing labor secretary Tom Perez, DNC finance chairman Henry Munoz III, and Reps. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.) are mentioned as potential candidates.

Some would like to see a woman, like NARAL president Ilyse Hogue, who is considering a bid.

Only one state chairman – South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison – has thrown his hat in the ring. New Hampshire chairman Raymond Buckley, who worked closely with Dean on the “50 state strategy,” is also considering a bid.

The winning candidate could be the one who convinces state officials that he or she will return the DNC to a bottom-up organization that focuses on rebuilding Democratic majorities at the state and local level, where the party’s ranks have been decimated.

There is deep frustration among many DNC officials who feel the party has pandered to their constituents and treated their states as ATMs only when national elections roll around.

“There is a sense that this wasn’t just a bad presidential result but that we lost that 50-state strategy,” said Ohio Democratic chairman David Pepper. “There’s a feeling that the chairs and the DNC members from all over the country are more tied into the state politics and better able to answer these broader questions than the folks in D.C. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Democratic National Committee Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Xavier Becerra
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