The race to become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee—the top job in a newly out-of-power party—was supposed to be the latest showdown between the Democrats’ incensed liberal wing and a more moderate establishment.
Maybe both sides needed a break.
With less than a month before the election, the nearly dozen declared candidates have struck a decidedly friendly tone in public, eschewing criticism of their rivals while emphasizing widespread areas of agreement. At times, their messages—resisting President Donald Trump, building local party organizations, reaching out to voters of all kinds—sound so similar it can seem as if the contenders are reading from the same script.
That makes the DNC race a rare moment of Kumbaya inside a party otherwise simmering with anger and division, where party leaders and activists are arguing about everything from why Hillary Clinton lost to how aggressively lawmakers should resist and confront Trump.
But observers of the race and the candidates themselves say the cease-fire is a reflection of the nature of the DNC job, which favors party-building over making the kind of stark ideological choices that incite division. Absent those arguments, the party can—at least temporarily—push aside its differences to fight against Republicans and the new president.
“There are a lot of people who are just tired of the squabbling and divisions that came out of the 2016 primary,” said Jamie Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a candidate for national job. “Nobody wants to be guilty of … dividing the party when facing Donald Trump, who is a threat not just to Democratic politics but American politics and America in general.”
Harrison is joined in the race by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley, media strategist Jehmu Greene, and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. Two other late, lesser-known entrants, Air Force veteran Samuel Ronan and Wisconsin Attorney Peter Peckarsky are also running.
Perez and Ellison are widely seen as the front-runners, with each backed by party leaders and elders. Perez has received the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden, while Ellison has received support from liberal icons Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Most Democrats expected the rivalry between Perez, the establishment pick, and Ellison, a liberal favorite, would be the race’s central flashpoint. The drama between the two men also takes place against the backdrop of recent controversies at the DNC, which many liberal activists think unfairly helped Clinton defeat Sanders in last year’s presidential primary.
Their furor culminated in July, when the former chair of the DNC, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., was forced to resign her position after hacked emails of hers revealed she had made disparaging remarks about the senator from Vermont. (An interim chair, longtime Democratic operative Donna Brazile, has run the DNC since.)
But Perez and Ellison have avoided direct confrontation, supporting a pledge from all the candidates not to criticize one another. Both men have also portrayed themselves as a unity candidate, able to unite the party’s warring wings.
“[Perez] came into the race with the admission that some of the complaints from the Sanders folks were totally accurate,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the former governor of Kansas who has watched the race closely. “He says he wasn’t involved in them, he doesn’t excuse them, and they should never happen again.”
The governor said Ellison has taken a similar approach, arguing the party needs hit the reset button to move past old divisions.
Democrats point to another reason the race hasn’t turned contentious: The divisions inside the party are rooted in policy, an area the DNC chair traditionally avoids. Party chiefs are responsible for media appearances, fundraising, and building infrastructure, but they leave policy decisions to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and, later, the party’s presidential nominee.
So even if the DNC race has played out under a cease fire, Democrats warn that détente isn’t likely to continue, especially in the party’s next presidential primary.
“There will definitely be primary battles that will be more focused on potential policy differences,” Sebelius said. “And there are certainly wings of the party depending on where you are in the country and what folks believe in.”
The election for the DNC chair will take place Feb. 25, when Democratic officials gather in Atlanta. The winner will be picked by a group of 447 state party chairs and other elected members, meaning the winner will ultimately have to impress party insiders as much as they do the broader Democratic base. (Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, jokes that the contest has “as many voters as a student council race.”)
Some party officials say they won’t be surprised if, in the race’s home stretch, the candidates start to attack one another with more vigor. The candidates’ surrogates have already gotten into the act: After Biden’s endorsement of Perez earlier this month, Sanders issued a statement urging the party to abandon its “failed status-quo.”
“I do think there are some signs of this devolving into a factional struggle, and I think we gotta resist that,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg himself, as an event for supporters in Washington on Thursday, noted that other candidates seemed to be copying his message of building the party from the ground up, focusing on electing relatively anonymous positions like city council and state legislature.
“I’m sure it’s because we all share the core values of the Democratic Party,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience.
Harrison, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, touts his own recent history of building a party infrastructure. His rivals and he share a vision for the future of the party, he said, but that doesn’t mean they all have the same experience and wherewithal to make it happen.
That sort of thing, Harrison said, might get a little more attention in the coming days.
“You might see people sharpen their elbows a little bit,” he said.