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ATLANTA — Democrats gathered in Atlanta on Saturday will select a new national chairman, a move they hope will help them harness opposition to President Trump and accelerate the recovery of their depleted party in time for the 2018 midterms.

Either Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota or Tom Perez of Maryland, President Obama’s labor secretary, is expected to get the nod from the 442 eligible voting members of the Democratic National Committee.

Dark horse candidate Pete Buttigieg, 35, the mayor of Fort Bend, Ind., used his nominating speech, delivered just minutes before the voting began, to exit the race. His withdrawal made an Ellison or Perez victory on one of the initial ballots much more likely.

The other remaining candidates could prolong the voting but are not expected to factor into the outcome. The winner must garner the support of 50 percent, plus one, of all DNC members who vote, and the DNC will vote as many times as it takes until someone gets a majority.

The two front-runners, equally liberal in their politics, are casting themselves as the only candidate capable of uniting a fractured and rudderless party still searching for a coherent and effective strategy for taking on Trump.

With just hours to go until the vote, Democratic insiders said the race was tight. Neither Ellison, nor Perez, had locked down 222 votes, a number that would guarantee victory, although Perez was believed to have the edge.

Buttigieg’s whip count trailed the other two front-runners considerably. He had banked on a balloting deadlock, at which time he planned to offer himself up as the consensus choice that could bridge the divide. His campaign likely concluded that strategy to be untenable.

The Ellison team was bringing big-name surrogates to Atlanta late Friday in an effort to convince undecided voters, among them Anquan Boldin of the National Football League’s Detroit Lions, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Top union officials, influential in Democratic politics, were also stumping hard for Ellison.

Perez late Friday evening began issuing press releases claiming the support of high-profile Democrats and commitments from full DNC delegations. Among them was former Kansas governor and Health and Human Services Secretary under Obama, Kathleen Sebelius.

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Andrew Werthmann, a DNC member from Wisconsin, a key midwest battleground crucial to the Democrats’ rebuilding efforts, said that Ellison was best positioned to grow the party’s ranks.

“There’s a lot of excitement around Congressman Ellison from a lot of folks who I would say represent the grassroots of the party and people who are interested in becoming a part of the party,” he said. “Congressman Ellison helps build a bigger party for us and I’m excited about that.”

Ellison and Perez are promising to rebuild the party’s moribund infrastructure and turn the progressive energy fueled by Trump into votes that can put the Democratic Party back in charge in Washington and state capitals, beginning with off-year and special elections set for the coming months.

“It’s about organizing,” Buttigieg told reporters on Friday. “It’s about positioning the party within a broader movement of people who are energized like hasn’t happened in my lifetime.”

The DNC chairman has, at least recently, been a minor figure among in the party among the other leaders. But given the candidates and how the campaign unfolded, the results could prove consequential.

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Ellison, a 53-year-old black Muslim, is backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who waged an upstart campaign for president in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton. Perez, 55, a Hispanic Catholic, was endorsed by many in Obama’s orbit. Early on, the race became a proxy war for control of the party between progressive insurgents and establishment insiders.

An Ellison victory might reassure Democrats concerned that Perez represents a status quo that could keep legions of young progressives and others attracted to Sanders’ (and even Trump’s) populist message on the sidelines in upcoming elections.

A Perez victory could calm the nerves of Democrats worried that Ellison would damage the party’s rebuilding efforts because his past criticism of Israel and associations with anti-Semitic figures. Jews constitute a major activist force within the Democratic Party.

It’s unclear that either candidate has a plan to re-engage the culturally conservative, blue-collar voters who for years formed the bulwark of the Democratic coalition but defected to Trump and the Republicans in 2016.

Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California who described himself as a “pragmatic progressive,” was supporting Perez. “He’s got national connections,” Mulholland explained. “The number one job of the DNC chair is to raise money … If you raise money you can do a lot more organizing.”

The Democrats were meeting in Atlanta to elect a full slate of new party officials. The marquee contest for DNC chairman was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Eastern Time, and run as many rounds as it takes for a winner to emerge with a majority of votes.



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