The election will continue for as many rounds as it takes for a candidate to lock up a majority of the 442 party officials eligible to vote.
The two leading contenders were the only candidates remaining on the ballot; all the other contenders withdrew. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez will now try to win over party leaders who voted against them in the first round. This last-minute jostling is likely to feature intense bargaining for supporters of the underdog candidates.
Many Democrats had predicted a close race that would require multiple rounds of voting.
“I don’t see the math to getting this done on the first ballot with the number of candidates that obviously have some support,” Alabama DNC member Clinton Daughtrey said on Friday.
Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown, U.S. Air Force veteran Sam Ronan, media strategist Jehmu Greene and attorney Peter Peckarsky withdrew after the first round of voting. Ronan and Peckarsky endorsed Ellison, while Greene threw her support to Perez. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out just before voting began, without endorsing anyone.
In the first round of voting, Perez got 213.5 votes, Ellison got 200, Boynton Brown received 12, and Greene got 0.5. Votes from Democrats abroad are worth half.
The party chair’s main role is to raise funds, recruit candidates and represent the party to the media. The job typically is neither coveted nor influential when a party controls the White House, and the president’s choice takes precedence.
But when a party is out of power, as Democrats are now, the race for chairmanship reflects competition among rival factions over how best to re-orient the party for future elections. In addition to losing control of the White House in 2016 and failing to retake either house of Congress, Democrats have lost almost 1,000 state legislature seats since 2009.
To complicate matters, the Democratic Party is divided along ideological lines. Progressives who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the presidential primary remain convinced that the DNC favored Hillary Clinton, and that the party failed to channel Sanders’ populist economic message in the campaign against Donald Trump.
Shortly after Trump’s victory, Sanders and prominent Clinton supporters like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) coalesced behind Ellison’s candidacy in an apparent effort to unite the party.
Perez entered the race in mid-December, reportedly after aides to then-President Barack Obama encouraged him. He has proven a formidable adversary for Ellison, picking up support from key Obama administration figures like former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Perez is now viewed as the establishment favorite. He pitches his federal executive experience, but he has drawn criticism for his public support of the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement while serving in Obama’s Cabinet. Like Ellison, Perez has a stellar reputation in progressive circles, leading some liberals to downplay the significance of a Perez victory.
Ellison, a congressman since 2007, points to his electoral success and his previous career as an organizer. He was hobbled early in the race by concerns about his past ties to the Nation of Islam, and leaked audio of controversial remarks he made about Israel at a 2010 fundraiser.
All of the DNC candidates agree the party desperately needs new, innovative leadership. Many DNC voting members have looked at the contest through a technocratic lens, rather than as the proxy battle exciting outside activists.
Across ideological lines, state party chairs and operatives have criticized the Obama administration’s formation of Organizing for Action, a fundraising and organizing arm that many Democrats say undermined party infrastructure. They also lament previous chairs’ lack of transparency and failure to attend to the needs of state and local parties.