Watch CNN’s debate with Democratic leadership candidates at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday.
Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison are at the forefront of an eight-candidate field to chair the Democratic National Committee. Perez is picking up the endorsements of the heads of the Democratic National Committee’s caucuses for women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and rural Americans. Ellison is picking up the mantle of the insurgency that led to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run and saw his political acumen praised Wednesday morning by Trump himself. And a third contender, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, got the backing of former DNC chairman Howard Dean.
All eight candidates are set to participate in a 10 p.m. ET Wednesday debate from Atlanta on CNN.
As they find themselves in the political wilderness, the candidates have stressed the need to face Trump with a united front and rebuild a party decimated by local, state and now national election results during Barack Obama’s presidency. They are also vying to lead an organization beset by accusations, partly fueled by revelations in stolen emails published by WikiLeaks, that it worked to secure the presidential nomination for Hillary Clinton over Sanders.
Aides and vote-counters for several candidates say they believe Perez — who says he has commitments of support from 180 of the DNC’s 447 voting members — has a narrow lead over Ellison.
But both sides admit they don’t yet have the votes necessary to clinch the job.
It could turn other contenders — especially South Carolina Democratic chairman Jaime Harrison, Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown and Buttigieg — into kingmakers when Democrats gather Saturday in Atlanta for what could be several rounds of balloting to select the party leader.
Television analyist Jehmu Greene, Democratic activist Sam Ronan and Wisconsin lawyer Peter Peckarsky are also in the running.
Perez is rolling out his latest endorsements Wednesday from leaders of four DNC groups in a statement first obtained by CNN.
“Tom is committed to ensuring the DNC not only listens to diverse voices from all states and territories but will include the diverse members of the DNC in rebuilding the organization and elect Democrats everywhere,” said Bel Leong-Hong, chair of the DNC’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders Caucus.
“He knows that in order to fight back against Trump and Republicans, we must unite as Democrats. He knows that we can’t just organize at a church every fourth October, we must organize 12 months a year,” said Iris Martinez, the chair of the DNC’s Hispanic Caucus.
DNC Women’s Caucus chair Lottie Shackelford and DNC Rural Council chair Betty Richie are also supporting Perez.
“We need a DNC chair who is committed to listening to voters and communicating our message to both urban and rural areas, and Tom is committed to doing that,” Richie said.
Outsider gaining steam
Buttigieg picked up an endorsement Wednesday morning from Dean, the former Vermont governor and DNC chair whose famed “50-state strategy” is the model each of the candidates in the current race say they believe the party needs.
Buttigieg has positioned himself as a break from the Sanders vs. Clinton proxy battle — with Ellison backed by Sanders and Perez supported by many Clinton allies — that the DNC race has become.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday, Dean echoed that theme.
Perez and Ellison “represent certain interests inside the Democratic Party who are at odds with each other. The fact that neither one of them has locked this up by this time tells you something about the nature of this race,” Dean said.
“I think it’s time for an outsider,” he said. “I was an outsider. I came in, we didn’t have the House, the Senate or the presidency, and when I left, we had the House, the presidency and the Senate.”
Trump praises Ellison
Ellison got a surprising endorsement of his political acumen on Wednesday morning in the form of a tweet from the President.
“One thing I will say about Rep. Keith Ellison, in his fight to lead the DNC, is that he was the one who predicted early that I would win!” Trump tweeted.
Ellison had already gained a key supporter over the weekend when New Hampshire Democratic chairman Ray Buckley dropped out and urged his supporters to back the Minnesota congressman.
It was “a real momentum-builder” in Ellison’s favor, said Michael Kapp, a DNC member from California who backs Ellison.
“Ray has been on the DNC for a long time, and more than anyone else, has a deep knowledge base of how the DNC has operated in the past and what needs to be changed,” Kapp said.
Women’s March leaders back Ellison
More than 200 young progressive leaders from dozens of the small organizations behind many of the largest anti-Trump protests released a letter backing Ellison on Wednesday.
“We believe he can activate the millennial base of the party by working with the movements we have powered,” they wrote. “He is committed to building a Democratic Party that undeniably represents everyday American voters, not billionaire big donors.”
Among the notable signees were Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez, both co-chairs for the Women’s March on Washington. Veterans of Sanders’ primary campaign featured prominently, including its former digital organizing director, Claire Sandberg, who is now working to promote primary challenges to sitting Democratic officeholders. The list also includes leading members of Our Revolution, a political organization formed by Sanders and top aides after the primary.
Ellison gave Sanders his second congressional endorsement in October 2015. The first was Ellison’s Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, who announced his support for Ellison’s DNC bid days after the general election.
Multiple rounds of voting Saturday
On Saturday in Atlanta, Democrats will chop the lowest-finishing contender from the list of candidates after each round of voting.
Candidates who sense they have no path to victory and drop out after the second or third ballot could play a major role in shifting momentum by publicly asking their supporters to embrace another candidate.
The outcome of the race hinges in part on undecided voters — whom several aides and vote-counters said make up about 15% to 20% of DNC members. Some have decided whom to support but won’t reveal that decision; others are still waiting to make up their minds. But that pool is shrinking rapidly.
“Every day, it’s fewer and fewer,” Kapp said.