DNC chair campaigns scramble ahead of tight vote

DNC chair campaigns scramble ahead of tight vote
© Getty

ATLANTA — The race to be the next leader of the Democratic National Committee is headed for a photo finish as party officials gather in Georgia ahead of Saturday’s vote to elect a new chairman.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a progressive firebrand with the support of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Amanda Gorman captures national interest after inauguration performance Woman who made Sanders's mittens says she's sold out MORE (I-Vt.), and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a favorite of the Obama administration, are in a furious final push that has turned downtown Atlanta’s Westin Hotel into ground zero for the Democratic rebuilding project.

Neither Ellison nor Perez has a lock on the majority of the 447 DNC members who will vote on Saturday. Many remain undecided, while many more aren’t revealing whom they plan to support.

DNC members have no idea who will win the party’s first contested chairman’s race in more than a decade.

Along with Ellison and Perez, five other candidates will also be on the ballot. There’s chatter among DNC members that a deadlock between supporters of Ellison and Perez could pave the way for a compromise candidate to win after the first vote.


South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the gay 35-year-old Rhodes scholar and military veteran who is a rising party star, is the favorite in that long-shot scenario.

“It is going down to the wire,” said Breanne Miller, a DNC vice chairwoman from Utah who is undecided. “I’ve heard crazy things like it will be 10 ballots. ... For a lot of people it will be their first contested DNC election, so I don’t think there’s any way to know how it will shake out. There’s a lot of talk that if the top two don’t get it, everyone will swing to another person. I don’t know. Everyone will be learning on the fly.”

The 73-floor Westin Hotel has turned into base camp for the candidates in the final stretch. DNC members from Idaho to West Virginia and the territories are milling about, soaking in the frenetic scene and huddling over drinks to hash out their positions.

Campaign staffers and volunteers have set up makeshift headquarters in the various lobbies and restaurants and lounges around the hotel. 

Activists and volunteers are running around passing out campaign literature. Ellison backers are wearing green “Keith for DNC chair” shirts, while Perez supporters wear blue “Team Tom” garb. Candidate signs are scattered about the hallways of every floor.

Behind the scenes, labor leaders and special interest groups are pounding the inboxes of DNC members with opposition research and final pleas to back one candidate or another.

The candidates and former candidates are striding about the hotel for cable news interviews and to make last-minute pitches to the DNC members who are running in and out of conference rooms for party business meetings.

The fact that nobody knows who will win the close race has heightened the atmosphere.

“It’s not going to be decided on the first ballot,” said Michael White, a DNC member from the Northern Mariana Islands who was wearing a traditional Mwarmwar head wreathe. “Despite what people say about the undesirability of backroom deals, I’m certain there will be some.”

The Hill has identified the stances of 240 DNC members, either through their private responses to a survey circulated over the past week or from public endorsements. Of those, Ellison leads with 105 supporters to Perez’s 57. The remaining candidates have fewer than a dozen supporters each, while more than 50 DNC members were undecided.

“I have so much faith in Keith because he’s an incredible organizer,” said Melissa Byrne, an Ellison supporter and candidate for vice chair who led Sanders’s national digital operations. “I’m hugely behind Keith and expect him to pull out a really strong victory on Saturday.”

But an Associated Press count put Perez in the lead with 205 votes — only 19 shy of a majority. Ellison had 153 votes in that survey.

The Perez campaign has said it has 180 firm supporters. His backers say that Perez has more than 205 votes, putting him within striking range of the 224 needed to win. 

Asked why his candidate would win, Perez supporter Gilberto Hinojosa had a one-word explanation: “Momentum.”

In an interview with The Hill Thursday, Hinojosa hinted at a major development coming in the race. Moments later televisions across the hotel cut to South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison announcing he would drop out of the race for DNC chair and back Perez.

Harrison later headed to the 73rd floor for a quiet lunch at the Sundial, a swanky revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel overlooking downtown Atlanta that makes a full revolution every hour.

“Sunday can’t come soon enough,” he said.

Most DNC members aren’t buying the vote counts of either candidate, believing the race to be fluid while support for the candidates is soft.

The fierce race between the two has provoked speculation that neither will achieve a majority and that their supporters might rally around an alternative third candidate, rather than see their foe win. 

The tensions have even reached some of the party’s leading figures. When former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRev. Barber says best way to undercut extremism is with honesty Biden requires international travelers to quarantine upon arrival to US Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 MORE endorsed Perez, he provoked a public rebuke from Sanders, who has vocally backed Ellison.

The battle lines between the Perez and Ellison factions could give Buttigieg an opening.

“They need a majority, which from what I can tell they still haven’t been able to do,” Buttigieg told The Hill. “If they did, they would have called us with a list and they haven’t. That means they don’t. So as long as that remains the case, there is going to be a lane for an alternative candidate and what’s really encouraging for us is we’ve had people from every camp say they like us and they might come to us.”

The good news for Democrats is that everyone interviewed by The Hill said they would fully support whoever wins DNC chair, even if the winner wasn’t their preferred candidate. 

The proxy war between Ellison’s supporters on the left and the centrist Democrats who back Perez isn’t roiling the DNC internally, members say.

Still, the fight hovers over the DNC campaign.

“I worry it will be a close election,” said David McDonald, an undecided DNC member from Seattle. “The question is which of the two can handle the aftermath of the close election better in terms of being able to consolidate the other person’s base. I don’t have a good handle in my mind as to which of the two can best deal with the disaffected part of base and bring them in.”