Hillary Clinton had barely conceded the 2016 presidential race when Bernie Sanders’ liberal legions signaled a resumption of their campaign to take over the Democratic Party.
But they might be putting the cart before the horse by stressing how to refocus the party’s message before the more immediate need of rebuilding an organization that has suffered dramatic state and congressional electoral losses the past six years.
Less than an hour after Clinton called President-elect Donald Trump to concede last Wednesday morning, the Sanders political organization, Our Revolution, issued its own verdict. Ignoring the defeated nominee, it said the result confirmed “the political elite of both parties, the economists and the media are completely out of touch with the American electorate” and vowed “to offer a real alternative vision to continue the work of the political revolution.”
Within days, the Vermont senator endorsed one of his earliest and most fervent supporters, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, for the Democratic National Committee’s chairmanship. An African-American who is one of two Muslims in Congress and has one of its most liberal voting records, Ellison said on ABC’s “This Week,” “The most important criteria for DNC chair is going to be vision.”
But other potential candidates have also emerged, including former chairman Howard Dean, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, South Carolina Democratic chair Jaime Harrison and outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez, as well as other issues, notably whether the party needs a full-time chairman.
“You can’t do this job if it’s not full-time. Period,” Dean said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” A former Vermont governor, Dean chaired the party after its 2004 defeat until Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.
History tells us Dean is correct. The most successful party chairs took over after presidential defeats — Democrat Bob Strauss and Republican Bill Brock in the 1970s, and Dean and Republican Reince Priebus more recently — and concentrated on rebuilding their party structures while leaving the vision thing to congressional leaders and the candidates who ultimately emerged.
The need for that kind of chair is underscored by the challenge the Democrats will confront in the next major political test, the 2018 midterm elections. Midterm elections traditionally test the party in power, but the arithmetic suggests Republicans are in a strong position to retain their majorities in both the House and Senate.
Only eight Republicans are among the 33 senators up for re-election in two years, and only one, Nevada’sDean Heller, is in a state Clinton carried. But 10 of 25 Democratic seats up are in states Trump carried. In the House, the post-2010 reapportionment continues to ensure GOP control, reconfirmed last week though Democratic candidates got more votes.
As a result, the major 2018 Democratic opportunity will come at the state level, where Republicans now hold 26 of the 36 governorships up for election, and a majority won’t have incumbents, including such major GOP-held battlegrounds as Florida, Ohio and Michigan. Democratic gains there are absolutely necessary if the party is to influence legislative and congressional redistricting after the 2020 census.
The new chair will become a major party spokesperson, along with Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the incoming Senate Minority Leader who will be the most powerful Democrat in the weakened party. But pressure from House members who want some new blood in the leadership forced Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to delay the Party’s leadership elections until after Thanksgiving.
The long-term Democratic future is even hazier. The 2020 presidential field could include some or all of a long list of ambitious office-holders: Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the unsuccessful 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, and fellow Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.
But history has been unkind to unsuccessful vice presidential candidates and, presumably, other contenders will emerge. After all, who knew four years ago that Donald Trump would even be a 2016 candidate?