DNC reaching end of tight leadership race as party seeks to unite

PHOTO: Keith Ellison, left, and Tom Perez hope to be the new chair of the Democratic National Committee. PlayGetty Images
WATCH Democratic leaders make their final pitch for DNC chair

Democratic party officials will vote Saturday for a new chair of the Democratic National Committee, but heading into the weekend, the race is still neck-and-neck and hotly contested.

Democrats may be united against President Donald Trump, but they remain deeply divided about who is best to lead and represent them.

The crowded field of candidates vying for the job narrowed this week, but those who dropped out only solidified the fault lines in the race.

It remains to be seen whether the drawn-out campaign for this role will help the party as it looks to rebuild itself. Insiders, party staff and many voting members fear it may have hurt it. They feel they have been handicapped at the start of the new Trump administration. In conversations, they say they are anxious to have a leader in place and the organization fully operational again.

"The biggest issue I hear right now is they want to get this part over with and they want to start fighting, we are how many days into his administration already and we are still trying to decide who are leadership is," the party's current finance chair, Henry R. Muñoz, told ABC News. "Four years from now we should get this over at the end of the year."

Last weekend, New Hampshire Party chair Raymond Buckley bowed out and threw his support behind Minnesota congressman and Progressive Caucus chair Keith Ellison. Buckley praised Ellison’s commitment to investing in local parties, a promise all the candidates have made, as well as his impressive backing from large progressive organizations, including Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

“Now, many candidates have spoken about these issues, but Keith's commitment to the states and a transparent and accountable DNC has stood out. He knows elections are not won and lost in the beltway, but on the ground across the country,” Buckley wrote in his statement. In a fundraising email a few days later for a progressive group, he wrote, that with Ellison as chair the “grassroots will be the top priority.”

Plenty of Democrats inside Washington and elsewhere fear Ellison lacks the management experience needed for the job and that picking him could send the wrong message to voters about the lessons the party needs to learn after the election in November.

Ellison is a firebrand, African-American Muslim who was one of the first to back Senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in turn, immediately backed Ellison’s bid for chair. He is often asked if the party is moving too far to the left and he never hesitates to emphatically say it's not. He is quick to reject the idea that he only appeals to certain fractions of the party.

“My district is 63 percent white, mostly working class people," he told ABC News. "They elect me year after year and they know what my religion is and they can look at me and see what color I am. It's not a problem. People are only a demographic until you know them, then they become people. Whether you talk to white working class voters or you talk to people of color, women, they don’t feel that either one of them was talked to well enough.”

The other front-runner for the job is President Obama’s former Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez. Thursday, in a statement closely resembling Buckley’s, the state party chair from South Carolina, Jamie Harrison, exited the race and backed Perez, adding to the long list of party officials and members of Obama’s former cabinet who have lined up behind him.

Perez argues that his experience running a large federal agency like the Department of Labor makes him uniquely qualified to oversee the national party. "Who has a track record of turning around organizations of that scale? That’s what we need to do," he told ABC News in a recent interview. "The Department of Labor is a big organization 16,000 strong and a 45 billion dollar budget and I had a good track record of making sure it was firing on all cylinders."

Like Buckley did for Ellison, Harrison praised Perez for promising to put grassroots activism front and center and strengthening state party chapters, but also emphasized Perez’s experience in Washington.

"Tom Perez has brought integrity, passion, and tenacity to every job he’s ever had," Harrison wrote. "These qualities are why Barack Obama and Joe Biden trusted him to spearhead an economic agenda that brought us out of the recession. They are why Eric Holder trusted him to enforce our civil rights and voting rights laws so that everyone is treated equally under the law and has access to the ballot box. And they are why I trust Tom to lead the Democratic turnaround as Chair of the DNC."

Neither Perez nor Ellison will confirm whether or not they have the majority of votes needed to win right now. Only 447 people will vote Saturday and most likely, the election will continue to be an iterative process with multiple rounds of ballots and debate, which could leave room for leader to emerge.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has received endorsements from five former DNC Chairs, including Howard Dean this week. Dean said Buttigieg, who turned 35 last month, brings a young perspective the party needs.

But Buttigieg -- an openly gay former Naval officer who served in Afghanistan -- entered the race relatively recently and lacks the national profile or name recognition like Ellison or Perez. Still, with his impressive resume, members have given him a look and he is quickly developing a following.

“Most important thing he is the 'outside of the beltway’ candidate,” Dean said this week of Buttigieg. "This party is in trouble. Our strongest age group that votes for us is under 35. And they don't consider themselves Democrats. They elected Barack Obama twice. They didn't elect Hillary Clinton but voted 58 percent for her and don't come out for the midterms or down ballot candidates."

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said that Sen. Chuck Schumer is the Senate majority leader. He is the minority leader.