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Tom Perez Isn’t As Liberal As Keith Ellison, But He’s Still Pretty Progressive

The race for chair of the Democratic National Committee came to an end today in Atlanta when former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected to the position, beating out Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in a race that had come to be framed as a battle between the party’s Obama-era establishment and the burgeoning progressive wing of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Conceding the race, Ellison, who was backed by Sanders, pleaded with his supporters to “give everything you’ve got to support Chairman Perez.” Some Ellison backers in the room, wearing the candidate’s green T-shirts and upset by the vote, chanted in protest.

The former labor secretary had appeared to be ahead, if only by a slim margin, in the final days before the election, which gave the party time to fret about potentially angry reactions from Sanders voters. Perhaps inevitably, given the power vacuum in the Democratic Party following the presidential election, the race became freighted with deeper meaning and led Sanders to condemn “a failed status-quo approach” embodied by Perez, who served under Obama. Well aware of the raw feelings lingering from a hotly contested presidential primary season, the two front-runners have been publicly adulating of one another and were spotted out to dinner in Washington the week before the election. Saturday’s messages of unity were almost certainly planned ones.

But Perez’s win deals an undeniable morale blow to the Sanders-supporting wing of the Democratic Party, which feels that the party’s loss in November was something of a referendum on the status quo. Nina Turner, a prominent Sanders-turned-Ellison surrogate, told The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel that if Ellison lost, “the future of the Democratic Party will walk away.”

The argument from the party’s Sanders wing was that Ellison was the best choice to put forth a message of progressivism that would reinvigorate the party’s base, implying that Perez was something of an establishment centrist. But Perez and Ellison laid out essentially identical visions for the party during the DNC race. Both called for a more decentralized organization that placed greater emphasis on the particular political climates and needs of each state, better candidate recruitment, and well-honed messages of economic populism that would speak to the party’s traditional base and beyond.

And both Perez and Ellison are well to the left of center on the spectrum of beliefs within the Democratic Party, though Ellison’s views are more deeply left. In fact, he’s more liberal than 90 percent of House Democrats, according to FiveThirtyEight ideological ratings that look at congressional voting records, donors and public statements. Ellison scores a -57 in our ratings (-100 is most liberal; +100 is most conservative). The average Democratic member of the House in the 114th Congress (2015-16) had a congressional record voting score of -40. Perez never served in Congress, but he did make an abbreviated run for attorney general of Maryland and has made public statements on political issues. Using these, we estimated his average score at -45, which is not as liberal as Ellison’s but indicates that he may be further to the left than the average Democratic member of the House.

Taking the podium in the afternoon after hours of balloting and his win, Perez motioned for Ellison to be appointed deputy chair. The party, it seems, is looking to move past the drama.

Harry Enten provided analysis.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.


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