Following GOP victories in the 2016 elections, Democrats have descended to their lowest levels of power in Washington, D.C., and capitals across the country since the Hoover administration. And with the Clintons and Obamas exiting the stage, there is no natural leader to take the party forward.
Unfortunately for Democrats, the race for Democratic National Committee chairman — one of the party’s most powerful open posts in D.C. — is unlikely to give much clarity to their conundrum. The DNC chairman’s race features no clear front-runner and, so far, little debate about the soul and direction of the party.
For the first time in a dozen years, there is an open race to run the party. The previously elected chair, US Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, resigned in July. She left after WikiLeaks released e-mails suggesting party staffers coordinated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the primary — and against US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The DNC chairman’s election will be held in late February in Atlanta, and it’s really anyone’s guess who will win. Party members anticipate several rounds of ballots, during which deals will be made between the candidates until someone wins a majority.
The candidates who are best known nationally are Tom Perez, President Obama’s former secretary of labor; and Keith Ellison, a US representative from Minnesota. Some Democrats have considered the duo as the proxy fight between the Clinton/Obama teams versus Sanders, who is backing Ellison.
“Because of Sanders, if there was a vote held today in Vermont, Ellison would win,” said Tim Jerman, vice chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party who, as a voting member of the DNC, will be supporting Ellison. “I have to honor that.”
But with the Clinton/Sanders divide in the race, no candidate has been able to lock up enough votes to win. Both Ellison and Perez have endorsements from unions, governors, mayors, and senators (US Senator Elizabeth Warren supports Ellison).
But Warren and other high-profile endorsers are not among the DNC’s 447 voting members — nearly half of whom are state Democratic chairs and vice chairs. The rest are mostly longtime party activists from nearly every state. Not even Bill or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama gets a vote.
“Endorsements don’t mean anything unless they are from voting members,” said Elaine Kamarck, an at-large DNC voting member who is backing Perez. “I don’t think anyone has a really good read on this race right now.”
According to internal counts from three of the campaigns, roughly 150 members have committed to a candidate — and the rest of the votes are up for grabs.
This represents a shift from the last open race for chairman. In 2005, there were a handful of candidates who ran for the DNC’s top job, but one by one, they dropped out as former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean secured the votes to win.
To be sure, Perez is the most well-known and best connected of the candidates running. But when asked why he hasn’t sewn up the race like Dean, Perez said it was unfair to the process and other candidates to see it that way.
“These voters really want to size us all up first,” Perez said in an interview.
In addition to Ellison and Perez, the field includes Sally Boynton Brown, the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party; Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.; Jehmu Greene, a Fox News analyst; Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party; and Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
That field is nothing if not diverse. Among the candidates are an African-American man, an African-American woman, an African-American who is Muslim, a white woman, a Hispanic man, and two gay white men.
What’s more, the field is growing. There will be 11 people at a DNC forum in Houston Saturday, including a new batch of lesser-known candidates.
“It is important that we don’t try to control the chaos,” Brown said.
The diversity of the field is notable since party elite, including Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, have lamented that Democrats have lost the so-called bubba vote of white, working-class men. So far not a single candidate for DNC chairman is a white heterosexual male.
At the forums, candidates appear to agree for the most part on tactical moves that Democrats should be making. Yes, the party needs to be more decentralized and fund state parties. Yes, the party needs to be more inclusive of all grass-roots voices. Yes, something should be done about superdelegates’ dominance in the presidential nomination system.
But the candidates differ on how to implement these changes. In separate interviews with the Globe, Brown, Greene, and Buttigeg each gave different explanations on how a 50-state strategy would work.
Ellison, for example, emphasized energizing the base with the right message.
“Running the DNC is about winning elections, and I’m the organizer who has done that in Minnesota and across the country,” Ellison said in a statement delivered by his staff, who declined to make the congressman available for an interview.
Interestingly, Perez does allow that Obama, his former boss, didn’t help state parties enough during his two victorious presidential campaigns. Obama’s campaign ran an operation that was mostly separate from state parties.
Running the inside game is Buckley, the only candidate from New England. In terms of running political parties, he is the most experienced in the field. He has been in charge of the Granite State Democrats since 2007 and served as vice chairman for years before that. More importantly for this contest, he has been the chair of the Association of State Democratic Chairs for eight years, putting him in regular contact with many of the voting members.
Buckley says that part of his challenge is to convince voting members that the job itself isn’t flashy — but rather a tactical gig focused on the day-to-day operations of fund-raising, candidate recruitment, staffing, data, and messaging.
“There is a reason why Republicans were successful in picking the unheard of Wisconsin chair Reince Priebus and now picked another state chair to be the current RNC head,” Buckley said. “We should learn from that.”
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.