Nov. 12, 2016 7:02 a.m. ET
Democrats, reeling from their election defeats, are facing an identity crisis and leadership vacuum that is shaping debate over who will be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The emerging leadership fight is being fueled by soul searching and recriminations about what went wrong in the 2016 elections and how the party should fix it.
The party’s left wing is rallying behind a progressive leader, Rep. Keith Ellison, who has already won the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose Democratic primary challenge to Hillary Clinton energized progressives who were disenchanted with her as the establishment choice for president.
Former DNC chairman Howard Dean is also running for the post, which he held from 2005 to 2009, but he faces resistance form Democrats who think the party needs a younger, fresher face.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who also ran for the Democratic presidential nomination without success in 2016, is also weighing a DNC bid, and more contenders may throw their hats into the ring in the weeks to come.
It is a competition for party leadership no one was prepared for because, if Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton had won, she would have picked the new party chairman. Instead, it will be decided instead by the DNC at its meeting early next year. The committee is led today by Donna Brazile, who has been serving as interim chair since Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced out last summer after hacked DNC emails showed party staff had tried to undercut Mr. Sanders’s candidacy.
Since Mrs. Clinton’s loss, her campaign officials have been holding conference calls with donors and supporters to field questions and offer explanations for why they stumbled—including blaming the voters.
One donor who was on a call said the campaign committed “malpractice” by spending time and money toward the end trying to win control of the Senate instead of locking down leads in important battleground states. This person cited North Carolina—a state Mrs. Clinton visited repeatedly but wasn’t essential to reaching the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Many shellshocked Democrats say the party needs to take a deep breath and do a careful analysis of what happened and how that should affect thinking about the party’s direction and leadership.
“You can take out a cannon and start shooting, or you can take your time and begin analyzing,” said Jay Jacobs, a former New York Democratic Party chairman and strong supporter of Mrs. Clinton. He said Democrats should remember that she won the popular vote before proposing a drastic change of course and “beating ourselves up too much.”
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But progressive activists and leaders believe the message of the election is clear, and they and are moving aggressively to change the DNC and its leadership to address their concerns. Critics of the party establishment, including Mr. Sanders, say the DNC has become too much of a fundraising machine that is not connecting with rank-and-file voters, and that contributed to the party’s failure in the election.
“We need a Democratic National Committee led by a progressive who understands the dire need to listen to working families, not the political establishment or the billionaire class,” said Mr. Sanders in a statement Thursday endorsing Mr. Ellison.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who is in line to be the next Senate Democratic leader and will need support from liberals like Mr. Sanders to keep his party together, also announced Friday he was backing Mr. Ellison.
“Without a Democratic White House, Schumer’s view is the DNC is where grass roots organizing in sync with legislative battles should be organized,’’ said Schumer spokesman Matt House.
Mr. Ellison, an African-American Muslim, serves as co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus and was an early backer of Mr. Sanders. He was first elected in 2006.
Some Democrats are concerned about tapping a member of Congress to be DNC chair, saying that one lesson of Ms. Wasserman Shultz’s tenure was that it should be a post held as a full-time job. Some of her critics said she was too conflicted in juggling her responsibilities as a national party leader, representing her House district and advancing her own political career.
The desire for a full-time party chair would be a selling point for Mr. O’Malley, who has been involved in party leadership as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in 2011 and 2012.
Mr. O’Malley said in a Friday interview that many DNC members are urging him to run for the chairmanship, and he is making calls to gauge interest.
He said he believed Democrats in 2016 had stumbled because they failed to connect with economically struggling voters in a campaign dominated by attacks on Mr. Trump.
“We ended up spending not enough time promoting our own economic message and too much time trying to disqualify the opposition,” Mr. O’Malley said.
Mr. Dean, who also would be available to serve as chairman full-time, announced his plan to run in a Twitter message that said the party needs “organization and focus on the young” as well as a strategy for competing in all 50 states. That was pretty much the same platform he ran on 11 years ago.
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