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DNC Chair Race Serves As Test To Determine Party's Future


Next week, members of the Democratic National Committee will meet in Atlanta to elect a new party chair. The race has attracted a lot more attention than it typically would, thanks to a White House loss that Democrats are still trying to process and the fallout from WikiLeaks airing the DNC's private affairs. And as NPR's Scott Detrow reports, there are a lot more candidates than usual, too.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Much like last year's Republican presidential primary, the race for DNC chair is playing out on a series of overcrowded stages across the country. But much unlike that primary, the 10 Democrats running to be chair are busy falling all over themselves to agree with each other.


KEITH ELLISON: We are all friends up here. We admire each other. We respect each other.

DETROW: That's Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, one of the frontrunners in the race.


ELLISON: I can assure you that when - that when Tom was the secretary of labor, I had no better friend over there. He was a tireless advocate, and I want everybody supporting me to know that I respect him. I like him. He's my friend.

DETROW: Ellison is talking about his main rival for the job, Tom Perez, who served as President Obama's labor secretary. At a recent forum in Baltimore, the candidates were all talking about the same basic things. Here's Perez.


TOM PEREZ: I'm a big believer in data analytics, but data analytics can't supplant good, old-fashioned door knocking, my friends.

DETROW: And the need to focus on rebuilding the party on a local level. Here's Ellison.

ELLISON: If you need me to go talk to state parties around the state, country, I'd do it. I went to 28 of them the last 10 years. I went to Nebraska. I went to New Jersey.

DETROW: The race is playing out at a time when the Democratic base is showing its power, holding massive rallies and protests that are planned, like the Women's March, and spontaneous, like demonstrations at airports after President Trump's recent travel ban. And looming behind it all is real, raging Democratic anger at Trump. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg is one of many candidates tapping into it.


PETER BUTTIGIEG: And I'll be damned if we're going to have a draft-dodging, chickenhawk president of the United States who thinks he's too smart to read his own intelligence briefings ordering the people I served with back into another conflict...


BUTTIGIEG: ...Because he can't be bothered to do his job properly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you. Thank you so much.

DETROW: But many of the candidates are saying the same thing as Tom Perez - being angry at Trump isn't enough. The party needs to tell voters what it stands for.

PEREZ: When Donald Trump says, I'm going to bring those coal jobs back, we know that's a lie, but people understand that he feels their pain. And our response was vote for us because he's crazy. I'll stipulate to that, but that's not a message.

DETROW: Despite all the unity, there are some rifts in this race. Many are viewing it as a proxy for the split exposed during last year's primary. The Clinton and Obama wing of the party is backing Perez, who's been endorsed by Joe Biden, while Ellison is benefiting from Bernie Sanders endorsement, but it's not quite that simple. For one thing, Ellison has also been endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest ranking Democrat in elected office.

Four hundred forty-seven party officials will vote for the chair later next week in Atlanta. The eventual winner will have a lot of work on his or her plate, raising money, restructuring a party that's been devastated and serving as a high-profile Democratic voice in the news. Former DNC Chair Howard Dean adds one more task.

HOWARD DEAN: Coordinating the tremendous rush young people who are interested in the process, who - they - and they really weren't much before.

DETROW: Dean took over the DNC in 2004. The party had lost a close race it viewed as winnable and found itself out of power at all levels.

DEAN: We didn't have the House, the Senate or the presidency. And when I left four years later, we had all three, so this can be done.

DETROW: But given how many state legislatures, governors' offices and wings of the federal government that Republicans control, it will take a lot of work. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.