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Democrats’ First Big Decision Since the Election: Choosing a New Leader

Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, gestures while speaking during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Monday, July 25, 2016.
Bloomberg/Getty Images Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, gestures while speaking during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016.

In gilded rooms and marble-floored halls, in hotel basements and operatives’ offices, Democratic insiders, legislators and advisers in Washington, D.C., are huddling to discuss their party’s future after one of the worst election upsets in recent years.

They have begun reimagining the party’s roadmap after Hillary’ Clinton’s shocking defeat: Do Democrats stay the course, or realign the party? Was Clinton the wrong candidate for the times? What kind of party should they be—populist, multicultural or more centrist?

First on the agenda is deciding on the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, a job that will help define the party’s ideology and its strategy to rebuild.

Rep. Keith Ellison, an early endorser of the liberal firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders, announced on Monday afternoon he is running to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Democratic Party’s leaders, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have voiced their support.

“We must begin the rebuilding process now,” Ellison said.

Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, threw his hat in the ring last week, tweeting that Democrats “need organization and focus on the young,” as well as a “fifty State strategy.” Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, recently a candidate for the Democratic nomination, told TIME that he is seriously considering a run. Other names that have been floated include DNC Vice Chair Ray Buckley, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison.

Each brings a different ideology and set of skills to the party that could chart its course amid tough setbacks. Whatever happens, much of the party’s soul-searching will play out in its pick for chair. The DNC will vote on its next chair early next year.

Ellison, the first Muslim to serve in Congress, has the blessing of both the Party’s leaders and the party’s grassroots. Schumer, the Democratic power broker and likely next Senate minority leader, said on Friday he supports Ellison’s bid. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren enthusiastically said Ellison would “would make a terrific DNC chair” in a television interview. The grassroots group Democracy for America has been supportive as well.

Ellison is a staunch opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a supporter of progressive economic policies. After losing key races in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, some Democrats are betting that Ellison could be a better standard bearer for a new, populist party message.

Sanders, the democratic socialist and the face of the liberal wing of the party, said over and again that an outsider, populist message was the right one for the times. He lost the Democratic primary by a significant margin to Clinton, but many supported Clinton because they felt she had a better chance at beating Trump. Sanders’ wife Jane said in a CNN interview that she thought her husband would have beaten Trump.

Others are watching from the wings, wondering whether Ellison is the best person to fill the chair. O’Malley, who ran ran the Democratic Governors Association in 2011 and 2012, said that the next chair should have a firm vision for rebuilding the party and experience in progressive governance.

O’Malley ran the Democratic Governors Association and would draw on his own institutional knowledge; the former Maryland governor is widely respected as a manager who can make the trains run on time.

“A lot of people in this election determined that their vote was best used to protest an economy that wasn’t working for them, instead of supporting a Democratic Party that had their best interests at heart. We need to change that. We need to do better,” O’Malley told TIME.

“There’s no one in this party who has better progressive credentials than I and no one who delivered results better in office than I have,” he added.

Howard Dean, who already served as DNC chair between 2005 and 2008, sniped at Ellison last week, suggesting he would struggle to be both a chair and a member of Congress. “Look, I like Keith Ellison a lot. He’s a very good guy,” Dean said in an MSNBC interview. “There’s one problem. You cannot do this job and sit in a political office at the same time. It’s not possible.”

Some Democratic insiders privately worry that Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, would repel the white, working class voters who supported Trump. Others wonder whether the Party’s leadership is misreading the country’s mood, saying that despite Trump’s victory, 2016 was not a change election.

Fewer than 40% of Americans voted for a candidate who “can bring change” as the most important quality, according to exit polls, and a Bloomberg Poll showed that 70% of Americans believe that they are as well or better off since President Obama’s election. Obama has an approval rating of 57%, according to Gallup, unusually high for a president at the end of his term.

Ellison said in an interview on NBC on Sunday that incomes haven’t grown in recent years—”People have been looking at 40 years of flat wages,” he said—though incomes rose sharply in 2015 under President Obama.

Some say Democrats should elevate a party official who can praise Obama’s legacy.

“Democrats have been very able stewards of the economy, and that’s the argument to be made,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist and president and founder of the think tank NDN. Slow wage growth “is not the result of globalization but bad economic policies by Republicans that Democrats have had to to come in and fix,” he added. “We should be building on the success of Obama presidency.”

Whoever wins the DNC vote in March will become one of the party’s most prominent leaders as the Democratic Party rebuilds itself and plans for elections in 2018 and 2020. The chair will play a central hand in rebuilding the party’s infrastructure, boosting Democrats in down ballot races and assisting state parties and will have an opportunity to set an ideological template for the party.

It is an unenviable task. Nationally, the Democratic Party has less power than it has had in years, controlling only 13 state legislatures and 17 governorships. There are 48 Democrats in the Senate to Republicans’ 51, and 193 Democrats in the House compared with 239 for Republicans. The Party is reeling after losing many voters in the industrial Midwest states, like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin to Trump.

Rebuilding the Democratic Party will require scrupulous financial investments in states, nurturing young stars in the party and providing an ideological framework to assault Trump and reshape the party’s message.

“The DNC is known for being a vehicle toward the presidency,” said Christine Pelosi, a member of the DNC and chair of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus. “It also has to be the vehicle that is helping build benches and state parties.”

The next chair will replace Donna Brazile, the embattled interim chair who was found to have sent questions for a Democratic primary town hall to the Clinton campaign. The last chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was loathed by the party’s grassroots and viewed by the party’s Establishment as making bad strategic mistakes during the Democratic primary. She limited the number of Democratic debates and was accused of aiding Clinton during the primary.

Party insiders close to leadership dismissed the idea that Ellison would not be able to both serve as a member of Congress and as DNC chair. Others have proposed splitting the job into two roles, national chairman and general chairman.

All agree, however, that the Democratic Party’s message got lost in the last election, and they are determined to change that.

“I think we need a chair who is going to go lead some door-knocks around this country in the off-year, so people get to know him and get to feel that this is a party of working men and working women around this country,” said Ellison in a conference call last week with Democracy for America, the liberal grassroots group.

“That woman who has been pouring coffee for 20 years should believe it’s the Democratic Party that is going to make sure she gets her Social Security,” he said. “But right now does she even know us?”

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