ATLANTA — Just days before Democratic activists pick a new party chair, the contest to head the Democratic National Committee remains fluid, as national leaders grapple with how to turn an outpouring of liberal protest against President Donald Trump into political gains.
A tight race between former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota marks the first heavily contested battle to run the organization in recent history, a reflection of a newly energized Democratic Party struggling to find the best path forward after years of losses in Congress, governor’s mansions and statehouses.
Perez, who was encouraged by Obama administration officials to run for the post, has emerged as the apparent front-runner, with independent Democratic strategists tracking him at about 205 votes. But it’s not yet clear whether Perez or Ellison — or one of six other long-shot candidates — is positioned to capture the required majority of the 447-member national party committee.
The strategists spoke on condition of anonymity because many DNC members they track do not want the vote count discussed publicly.
Ellison, backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, has the support of about 153 members, the strategists said.
Ellison spokesman Brett Morrow blasted the count as “totally inaccurate” and said his camp remains “incredibly confident.”
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for another candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, also disputed the count. Buttigieg is touting his recent endorsement from former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, widely regarded as a successful party leader.
But neither the Ellison nor Smith campaigns would release their own tracking numbers, and multiple other campaigns said the strategists are accurately reflecting the state of the still-competitive race.
The counts have South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison at 27 votes, a number that could make him a kingmaker who tilts the race to the eventual winner. The counts have Buttigieg and Sally Boynton Brown, the executive director of the Idaho party, combining for fewer than 20 votes, with remaining votes uncommitted.
DNC members will vote on the final day of the party’s three-day meeting that begins Thursday in Atlanta, with as many rounds as required for a candidate to secure a majority. The candidates will meet for a forum hosted by CNN on Wednesday night and spend the next several days wooing the state party chairs, longtime activists and donors who make up the full party committee.
Even in the final days, the race remains highly volatile as DNC members try to determine which candidate could best lead a party with no formal hold on power in Washington and no unifying national leader after President Barack Obama’s departure from the White House and Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidential election.
The race could easily tip to either Perez or Ellison; a third possibility is that the committee could end up in a deadlock with the two current leaders short of a majority. That could open up the door for candidates like Harrison, Buttigieg or Boynton Brown to rally more support in later rounds of voting. There’s also the possibility that any of the three trailing hopefuls could drop out and try to tip the scales by endorsing Perez or Ellison.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen on Saturday,” said Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who’s backing Perez.
Some Ellison backers question whether Perez, who has spent a career in government but not electoral politics, is the right man to harness the anti-Trump energy and use it to rebuild the party. Other Democrats, meanwhile, worry whether Ellison, an unapologetically combative liberal, is the right messenger for a Democratic Party that has lost standing across wide swaths of the country.
Last week, New Hampshire Democratic chairman Ray Buckley dropped out of the race, throwing his support to Ellison. According to people with knowledge of the conversations, Buckley had asked his rivals for control over day-to-day operations of the organization, as well as the next presidential convention, in return for his support. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of any overtures and negotiations.
In a statement announcing Buckley’s backing, Ellison said he’s asked the longtime party official to “lead our effort to provide the support and resources the state parties need in a new and innovative 57-state strategy.”
Buckley has been lobbying the roughly dozen members that were supporting his bid to back Ellison.
Last week, Perez told supporters he was just 44 votes away from winning the race, prompting a swift response from Ellison, who charged his rival with pushing “an unverifiable public whip count” and putting “a finger on the scale.” Ellison has picked up a number of high-profile supporters in the past 10 days, including several state party chairs and the backing of the SEIU, a prominent union.
Lerer reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Manchester, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.