ATLANTA (AP) — Just days before Democratic activists pick a new party chair, the contest to head the Democratic National Committee remains fluid, as national leaders grapple with how to turn an outpouring of liberal protest against President Donald Trump into political gains.
The tight race between former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota marks the first heavily contested battle to run the organization in recent history, a reflection of a newly energized Democratic party struggling to find the best path forward after years of losses in Congress, governor’s mansions and statehouses.
Perez, who was encouraged by Obama administration officials to run for the post, has emerged as the front-runner with the backing of 205 committee members, according to independent Democratic strategists tracking the race. The strategists spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the voting publicly. Ellison, backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, has the support of 153 members.
South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison has support from 27 members, creating a role for him to become a potential kingmaker in the race.
Two other candidates — Idaho executive director Sally Boynton Brown and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana — have 10 and eight votes, respectively. Jehmu Greene, a Democratic organizer and a former Fox News contributor, has no supporters.
The remaining members are uncommitted, meaning the race could easily go to either Perez or Ellison.
Aides to Ellison disputed the count, saying their internal count is higher. Multiple other campaigns said they accurately reflect the state of the still-competitive race.
The 447 DNC members will vote during the party’s meeting in Atlanta on Saturday, with as many rounds as required for a candidate to get 224 votes. The candidates will meet for a forum hosted by CNN on Wednesday night and spend the next several days wooing the state party chairs, longtime activists and donors who make up the voting members.
Even in the final days, the race remains highly volatile as DNC members try to determine which candidate could best lead a party with no formal hold on power in Washington and no unifying national leader after President Barack Obama’s departure from the White House and Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidential election.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen on Saturday,” said Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who’s backing Perez.
Some Ellison backers question whether Perez, who has spent a career in government but not electoral politics, is the right man to harness the anti-Trump energy and use it to rebuild the party. Other Democrats, meanwhile, worry whether Ellison, an unapologetically combative liberal, is the right messenger for a Democratic Party that has lost standing across wide swaths of the country.
Last week, New Hampshire Democratic chairman Ray Buckley dropped out of the race, throwing his support to Ellison.
According to people close to Buckley who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, he had asked his rivals for control of day-to-day operations of the organization, as well as the next presidential convention, in return for his support.
In a statement announcing Buckley’s backing, Ellison said he’s asked the longtime Democratic party official to “lead our effort to provide the support and resources the state parties need in a new and innovative 57 state strategy.”
Buckley has been lobbying the roughly dozen members that were supporting his bid to back Ellison.
Last week, Perez told supporters he was just 44 votes away from winning the race, prompting a swift response from Ellison, who charged his rival with pushing “an unverifiable public whip count” and putting “a finger on the scale.” Ellison has picked up a number of high-profile supporters in the past 10 days, including several state party chairs and the backing of the SEIU, a prominent union.
Even Trump offered his opinion of the race in a tweet Wednesday morning: “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!”
In a July 2015 appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Ellison warned that Democrats should take Trump seriously, saying the party “better be ready for the fact that he might be leading the Republican ticket.”
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne contributed in Manchester, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
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