WASHINGTON – Democrats began voting to pick a new leader Saturday to challenge Republican President Donald Trump as their party struggles to move on from its bitter election defeat last year.
With opposition Democrats preparing for crucial 2018 midterm elections and the nation’s next presidential race on the distant 2020 horizon, nothing less than the future of the party is at stake.
But while the battle over who chairs the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is a look toward the party’s future, some see it as a proxy battle between the supporters of two also-rans: the defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her liberal primary rival Bernie Sanders.
It features front-runners Tom Perez, a Hispanic-American and former secretary of labor under Barack Obama who is the establishment pick; and Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, an African-American lawmaker from the party’s progressive wing who has left open the prospect of pushing to impeach Trump.
A third candidate seen in contention, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg — a gay, 35-year-old Rhodes Scholar and military veteran — dropped out of the race before the voting on Saturday at a DNC meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.
During a debate with several DNC candidates Wednesday night, Perez and Ellison expressed similar views about how they would run the party.
They acknowledged that it needs to take a solid economic message to working-class and middle-class Americans, many of whom said during last year’s campaign that they felt abandoned by Democrats.
Perez, 55, said Democrats need to “get back to basics” by making house calls in all 50 states and establishing a year-round organizing presence to remind American workers that the Democratic Party represents their values and interests.
“When we lead with our message, our message of economic opportunity, that’s how we win,” he said during the debate broadcast on CNN.
Crisis of confidence
Perez also warned that Democrats must reform their party’s presidential primary system, which he said has created “a crisis of confidence” because of its lack of transparency.
And he and other candidates, well aware that Democrats lost ground to Republicans in state house and governor races, stressed the need to seed the party with new, young talent.
Ellison, 53, is the insurgent in the race.
He was a Sanders supporter during the Democratic primaries and — like Perez — has pledged to reclaim the party’s reputation of standing for fair trade, jobs, infrastructure investment and preservation of Social Security.
Trump “stole a Democratic message” by constantly reminding working-class and middle-class voters during the campaign that he was the candidate who listened to their concerns, Ellison said.
Trump no doubt is watching the DNC race closely. Earlier this week he tweeted about Ellison, saying “he was the one who predicted early that I would win!”
On Friday, Clinton herself sent a message to the gathering Democrats, urging them to “keep fighting and keep the faith,” while staying focused on critical upcoming elections.
“The challenges we face as a party and a country are real,” she said in a video message.
“So now, more than ever, we need to stay engaged, in the field and online, reaching out to new voters, young people and everyone who wants a better, stronger, fairer America.”
Saturday’s winner needs a majority of the DNC’s 447 members. Should a candidate not secure a majority in the opening round, members vote again until a candidate emerges victorious.