5 challenges for new DNC chairman Tom Perez

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez won the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman race over the weekend in Atlanta. Now that he’s in charge, Perez has to turn around a party that lacks both a successful message and any meaningful amount of national power. 

Perez inherits a monumental rebuilding project as leader of a national party that is starkly split between its grassroots and establishment members and reeling from years of electoral losses.


As chairman, Perez will have to reignite an apathetic donor base, develop a strategy for winning elections, unite a divided party and develop a message for Democrats living under President Trump.

Here’s a look at the challenges Perez faces as he seeks to turn things around for the party.


Can he raise money?

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 elections, top liberal donors fumed that the millions they spent to get Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and Democrats elected had been wasted. 

Some frustrated donors vowed to withdraw from the electoral process completely, saying they’d continue to give to liberal causes but not to Democratic campaign groups they viewed as inept.

That frustration carried over to the DNC members gathered in Atlanta, who questioned how the national party spends the millions of dollars it raises. 

Under past leadership, the chairman and finance chairman have not worked with an agreed-upon budget — something members said needs to change.

Rebuilding liberal donors’ faith in the party and developing a spending strategy that is immune from the criticism that money is being wasted on Washington consultants should be a top priority for the new chairman.

Perez’s allies point to his fundraising success in the DNC race as proof that he’s up to the task. Perez jumped into the race a month after Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who benefited from the sizable fundraising list compiled during Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential run. But the former Labor secretary still matched his rival with more than $1 million in receipts.

Perez will have an ally in DNC Finance Chairman Henry Muñoz III, who publicly endorsed Perez over Ellison the night before the vote. Muñoz also helped push Perez over the top in the election, persuading DNC members to vote for him.

Several major donors considered challenging Muñoz for finance chairman, but he ultimately ran unopposed and was confirmed by acclimation. Muñoz, a gay Latino, is among the most connected national Democrats. He’s also been one of the few constants at the DNC in this tumultuous period, as he’s the only party official to carry over from the previous administration.


Can he retool the party for electoral success?

Perez has almost no electoral experience, a charge detractors used against him during the DNC race.

He ran successfully for Montgomery County Council in Maryland in 2002. But he failed in his bid for Maryland attorney general in 2006 after being disqualified on a technicality.

There will be enormous pressure on Perez to turn the party’s fortunes around quickly, particularly at the state level, where legislators will redraw district lines in 2020.

Democrats have blamed GOP gerrymandering in 2010 for their inability to make significant gains in the House. 

State-level gains are even more important for Democrats because the congressional electoral map is unfavorable for Democrats in 2018.

While the out-of-power party typically picks up House seats in nonpresidential election years, Democrats are defending 25 seats in the Senate, including 10 in states that Trump won in 2016.

Perez has vowed to return the DNC to former Chairman Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy,” which is still viewed by many in the party as the gold standard. 

Many Democrats blame their losses on a disconnect between the national party in Washington and grassroots liberals across the country. They’re eager for the new chairman to direct more resources and attention to those on the ground. 

It will be critical for Perez to find a way to follow through on that commitment.


Can he bring in skeptical progressives?

Ellison ran for DNC chairman with the backing of progressives such as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.), along with the backing of many liberal grassroots groups. 

Several Ellison backers have told The Hill they are unsure whether they can support Perez, highlighting the intraparty rift he must overcome.

Sanders and grassroots progressive groups released less-than-enthusiastic statements about Perez after his win.

Sanders’s statement lectured Perez on how “the same-old, same-old is not working.” 

The Vermont independent has also said he won’t turn over his coveted donor list to the DNC.

Meanwhile, Democracy For America, a group run by Jim Dean, a brother of Howard Dean, called Perez’s victory “incredibly disappointing” and “another missed opportunity.”

Perez squashed a revolt in Atlanta by quickly moving to make Ellison his deputy chairman. It is up to Perez and Ellison to determine whether that is merely a symbolic position or whether Ellison will indeed be active in rebuilding the national party.

Regardless, there is still a lot of work to be done to bridge the grassroots-establishment divide.

Sanders supporters are trying to take over Democratic parties at the state level. They will be running their own candidates and, at times, challenging incumbents in primaries.

That’s tricky political ground for the new chairman, but it also means opportunities to build on the enormous energy on the left that is playing out at contentious town halls with lawmakers across the country. 

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The question is whether
Perez can capture that grassroots energy at a time when the base has deep suspicions about the national party.


Can he change the culture at the DNC?

Democrats are relieved to finally turn the page on the DNC’s previous leader, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). 

Wasserman Schultz is almost universally blamed for fostering a culture at the DNC that led to massive electoral losses and the rise of bitter feelings between rival wings of the party.

To be effective, Perez will have to rebuild trust in the DNC, which is currently understaffed and dogged by low morale after WikiLeaks published internal party emails, allegedly obtained by Russian-backed hackers looking to sway the election for Trump.

That task is all the more difficult because progressives feel burned by Perez’s victory over Ellison, the grass roots’ favorite. 

In the days leading up to the election, Ellison supporters demanded to know why former President Obama and his allies had recruited Perez to run for chairman after Ellison had already been running for a month and had won the support of both liberals like Sanders and establishment figures like Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: US showing signs of retreat in battle against COVID-19 | Regeneron begins clinical trials of potential coronavirus antibody treatment | CMS warns nursing homes against seizing residents’ stimulus checks Schumer requests briefing with White House coronavirus task force as cases rise Schumer on Trump’s tweet about 75-year-old protester: He ‘should go back to hiding in the bunker’ MORE (D-N.Y.). 

Perez’s staffing choices will be closely watched, and progressives will make noise if they feel frozen out.

The good news for Perez is that, as a brand, the DNC may be at its low point. 

The end of the Wasserman Schultz era has many Democrats optimistic that the party can only go up from here.


How will he deal with Trump?

As DNC chairman, Perez becomes the party’s public face and chief spokesman in charge of defining Democratic opposition to Trump.

One concern some DNC members have about Perez is whether he can be as effective a communicator as Ellison, who has a more natural presence on the stump and far more campaign experience.

But Perez came fast out of the gate after his win, hitting the Sunday political talk show circuit to accuse Trump of sowing “chaos and carnage” and characterizing his executive actions as “racist.”

That’s the kind of red meat the DNC chairman will be expected to dish out on a regular basis to energize the base.

In Trump, Perez will have a natural foil. 

Everything Perez does will be viewed against the backdrop of how effective he is at undermining a president whom the left sees as a historic danger to the country.