The Democrats’ paltry field of primary candidates for the 2016 presidential election seemed to suggest that they might be out of fresh faces. This suspicion was confirmed by the eventual nomination of Hillary Clinton, a robotic and generally disliked politician who has been recycled time and again in the hopes that people might change their minds and begin to love her.
After the party received a painful shellacking across all levels of government in November, it became even more evident that its bench is incredibly thin. The odd and under-qualified assortment of potential 2020 presidential candidates — Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, California senator Kamala Harris, and New Jersey senator Cory Booker — raises some red flags for the Democrats, but the current race for chair of the Democratic National Committee is perhaps the best indicator of the underlying problem.
Though the Democrats have nine candidates jockeying for the position, the race seems to have narrowed to two front-runners: Minnesota representative Keith Ellison and Barack Obama’s second secretary of labor, Tom Perez. Meanwhile, trailing underdog Pete Buttigieg has become a plausible third option, giving reason to believe that he could come from behind by playing up his role as successful mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Ellison has received endorsements from a wide variety of Democratic power players, including progressive-leaning senators such as Warren, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, as well as the influential AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. Until Perez entered the race in mid December, Ellison was widely considered to be the clear favorite. But the former labor secretary has garnered some high-profile support of his own from ex-vice president Joe Biden and several union leaders, and he is focusing in part on the problems that led to the Democratic party’s big losses in last year’s elections as he attempts to gain ground on Ellison.
“We got our ass kicked in a lot of these rural pockets because we weren’t there in sufficient force,” Perez said shortly after entering the race. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t ignore rural America, because we do it at our peril.”
Among the seven candidates trailing behind Ellison and Perez, Buttigieg stands out as a possible dark horse. Like Perez, he promises to lead a renewed effort to connect with the rural, middle-class voters that President Donald Trump was so adept at winning over. At 35 years old, he is the youngest of the candidates, and he served a seven-month tour in Afghanistan after joining the Navy Reserve in 2009. As mayor of South Bend, he has a slight edge over his competitors in a party that appears hopelessly disconnected from Middle America, and his popularity at home suggests that he might have the best chance at appealing to disaffected Trump voters.
South Bend is now primarily known as the location of the University of Notre Dame, which contributes heavily to the town’s otherwise declining economy. But unlike previous mayors, Buttigieg has made an effort to propel his constituents to a more prosperous future, expanding partnerships with the university and encouraging the city’s older residents to stop mourning the loss of its former glory and rebuild its economy in new ways.
Unlike Ellison and Perez — one a radically progressive representative, the other radically progressive former federal bureaucrat — Buttigieg has a demonstrated ability to appeal to the same white, working-class Midwesterners who responded so positively to Trump. This appears to be why he recently earned the endorsement of former DNC chair Steve Grossman, who wrote:
At a time when many have lost faith in the future and have severe doubts that their children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be better than their own, we need a Democratic Party leader who makes optimism a way of life and believes in the power of grassroots organizing to change and improve the quality of peoples’ lives. That’s what Democrats have always believed and it’s at the heart of Pete Buttigieg’s values and character.
The provincial attitude that is causing Democrats to overlook Buttigieg in favor of liberals such as Ellison and Perez is the same attitude that led to their massive losses in November. If they continue to search for a compelling answer to the Trump phenomenon further down the barren road paved by Clinton, it will prove that they still haven’t learned their lesson.