Howard Dean drops out of Democratic leadership race, leaving Keith Ellison as the frontrunner

Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid to lead the Democratic National Committee got a shot in the arm Friday afternoon, as his chief rival for the spot, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, announced he was getting out of the race.

After revealing his decision in a video address at a Denver meeting for Democratic leaders, Dean said in a MSNBC interview that he believes the party needs to “turn itself over to the next generation.”

“One of the problems we had in this election is we’ve got to connect more with young people — and that means not having faces like mine,” said Dean, 68, who ran as a presidential candidate in 2004, and led the DNC between 2005 and 2009.

Dean added that he did not want the DNC race to become a “proxy fight” between supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Ellison supported Sanders, who in turn threw his support to the Minnesota congressman’s bid to become leader of the DNC, while Dean had backed Clinton over his fellow Vermonter.

Since Clinton’s unexpected defeat, Democrats have been soul searching about why their party lost, with some, including Sanders, arguing that the party should move away from “identity politics” — focusing on race and gender — and instead hone in on economic issues.

Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean campaigning in the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary. (Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

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Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean campaigning in the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary. (Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Ellison, a 53-year-old Democrat from Minnesota, and the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, has racked up support for his DNC campaign from both progressive firebrands, like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and more mainstream Democrats like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate minority leader.

In an interview this week with the “Keepin It 1600” podcast, Ellison argued that his party must reach out to the white working-class voters that it lost to Donald Trump this cycle, as well as the nonwhite working class, who share many of the same economic concerns. (Ellison’s Minnesota district is mostly white.)

“The American people need a party to say, ‘We’re on your side and willing to kick down doors for you,’” he said. “That’s what’s needed in this moment. And I think that even though I’m black and I’m Muslim, people in my district vote for me because that is nowhere near as important as the fact that I actually care about them.”

Ellison also faces challenges, however. This week, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, blasted what it called his “disqualifying” questioning of the United States’ policies toward Israel in a 2010 speech. CNN also dug up decades-old articles in which Ellison defended the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic leader Louis Farrakhan. This week, Ellison apologized for those articles, some of which he wrote in law school, saying that he had “neglected to scrutinize the words of those … who mixed a message of African-American empowerment with scapegoating of other communities.”

Still, with Dean out of the race, there’s no clear challenger to Ellison. South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Chairman Ray Buckley have also thrown their hats into the ring, but both lack the name recognition and big-ticket endorsements. Labor Secretary Tom Perez is also interested in the job, Yahoo News reported.

Keith Ellison. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Keith Ellison (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Some Democrats have suggested that Ellison, as a full-time congressman, can’t take on the onerous job of rebuilding the party, which has lost more than 1,000 seats in state legislatures in six years — as well as the House, Senate and White House. Dean called this task “more than a full-time job.”

Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, who was DNC chair during the 2000 presidential election, agrees.

“I was in Washington no more than one day a week,” he told Yahoo News, in describing his time as national chair of the DNC. “I was on the road the other five days, and I went home on Sunday to get a change of clothes. For 12 months, that’s what I did.”

Rendell said he thinks the DNC should consider splitting the chairmanship in two — with one person crisscrossing the country and raising the money as the “national chair” and another staying in Washington to build the party infrastructure as the “general chair.”

Ellison could be the general chair in D.C., with a “party elder” fundraising on the road, Rendell suggested.

“The perfect person — but I don’t think he’s interested — the perfect person would be Vice President Biden. He would unite the party,” Rendell said.

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