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House Democrats Look Beyond DNC Chairman Race

They have no say in the election but hold high hopes for the winner

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is the only member of Congress running for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is the only member of Congress running for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Congressional Democrats have little sway over who the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee will be. But the eventual winner — to be elected by DNC members this weekend in Atlanta — may play an important role in shaping the direction of a party that desperately needs help articulating its message and organizing ahead of the 2018 midterms.

“Right about now, they do nothing with the Congress. So anything would be an improvement,” Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, a former DNC member, said of the committee last week, outside the House chamber. 

Many Democrats just want to move beyond what’s often felt like an extension of the 2016 presidential primary. 

“Whoever gets elected has to first make sure that it isn’t another schism in this party,” Dingell said. “And after we get through with that, then they need to be smart about how to use all the talent that’s here on both sides of the Capitol.”

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison has racked up the most congressional endorsements. But that won’t necessarily translate into victory on Feb. 25 since members of Congress don’t vote. The victor needs a majority of DNC members, and it’s expected to take multiple ballots for any of the remaining candidates to secure the necessary 224 of 447 votes.

Not since 2005 has there been an open race for the chairmanship. Typically a Democratic president selects the chairman. But with Democrats completely out of power at the federal level — and the party losing its grip at the state level — there’s a renewed focus on the position this year. 

“[It’s] the titular head of the party, absent having a president right now,” said New York Rep. Joseph Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.  

Not all members see much at stake in the DNC election. “I’m not even tracking it,” said Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson, shaking his head when asked if he’d make an endorsement. For the 14-term Blue Dog, likely the only Democrat who can hold his agricultural district, steering clear of national party politics makes sense. 

‘Show us a pathway’

But for the Democratic caucus at large, the need to organize is particularly acute.

“This is a time when the Democratic Party is looking for new leadership, and if a strong DNC chair gets elected who’s going to provide that and show us a pathway to winning back so many of these seats that we’ve lost in the House, then we’ll be in better shape,” Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton said. 

Democrats gained a net of just six House seats in 2016 — an impressive feat by historical standards while losing the White House — but well below expectations set by their own leaders. Frustrated members directed their ire at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the elections.

But just as Democrats are eager to move beyond what many see as a DNC proxy war between the establishment and progressive wings of the party, House Democrats want to transcend what’s often sounded like a dichotomous postelection debate about who their base should be — well-educated urbanites or blue-collar workers. 

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New York Rep. Grace Meng, right, is running for re-election as a DNC vice chairwoman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

To get there, some members expressed an interest in seeing the new chairman prioritize operations and decentralize messaging. Being a mouthpiece on cable TV shouldn’t be the chairman’s primary role, they said.

“It is part of the job,” Dingell said. “But we’ve got strong leaders here and I think the grass roots wants to hear from other people.”

Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, one of the most outspoken critics of party leadership in the House, agreed that the new chairman should worry less about being the voice of the entire party.

“That might have been some of the problems in the past,” she said.

Grass-roots effort

Rice wants the new chairman to build party infrastructure from the ground up. “Republicans had it right,” she said, recognizing the GOP’s dominance at the state legislative level across the country.  

“New York State, for instance. We have a statewide Democratic Party. It serves one person: the governor. And I don’t think that New York is alone in that,” she added.

Fellow New York Democrat Grace Meng, who’s running for re-election as a DNC vice chairwoman, agreed that the committee should focus on building up the party’s bench. She’s interested in fostering better connections between Democrats in the states and Democrats in Congress.

“Our DNC members and their state parties in rural areas would love to be able to connect and hear from them,” she said. “They’re so hungry for attention.”

The DNC has traditionally invested in state parties, while allowing the congressional campaign committees to operate in their own spheres.

In an interview outside the House chamber last week, DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján said he’d like to see more collaboration between Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative campaigns in the same states.

Democratic strategist Martha McKenna, a former DSCC political director now working for South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for chairman, agreed, saying, “We have to leverage the resources and the talent at each of these committees in order to win tough races.”

“It doesn’t benefit Democratic congressional candidates if these committees are siloed,” she said.

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