WASHINGTON – Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison on Monday launched his bid to run the Democratic National Committee, where, if elected, he will be responsible for rebuilding the party from the ashes of its stunning defeat at the polls.
Ellison, who represents Minneapolis, last week won his sixth term in the House with nearly 70 percent of the vote. In his bid on Monday, he called presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump a product of the 6.8 million Obama voters who did not go to the polls, and said that he would specifically focus on rebuilding excitement — and ultimately turnout — for the Democratic side.
"The election was a shock and I actually thought we were going to win this election, and as the evening rolled on and the numbers came in I was in a state of disbelief," Ellison said in an interview Monday. "But it didn't take long for me to come to the conclusion that the problem was turnout. We didn't turn out enough people."
Ellison's bid to run the DNC is in many ways a proxy war between establishment Democrats and the more liberal flank of the party that didn't initially succeed in the presidential primaries with its preferred candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Ellison was an early backer of Sanders but shifted to Clinton once Sanders dropped out.
If elected to run the DNC by its members in January, Ellison will be the public face of the party's political and fundraising arm. He would face a formidable 2018 midterm cycle that likely will see a number of Democratic incumbents from red and purple states defending their seats, and he also would have influence about who would run at the top of the 2020 presidential ticket.
Ellison, an African-American Muslim, is in many ways an exemplary anti-Trump voice. The president-elect's campaign trail rhetoric was often divisive and included calls for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Over the weekend, Trump hired as a chief strategist Steve Bannon, who runs a news website that has promoted white nationalist views.
Ellison issued a statement Monday castigating Trump's choice, saying that Bannon "is adored by white supremacists, white nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and the KKK," and that the president-elect must rescind the appointment if he is "serious about rejecting bigotry, hatred and violence from his supporters."
Ellison drew widespread support over the weekend and Monday from the party's elite, including Sanders and presumed incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Harry Reid, the current Senate minority leader, threw his support behind Ellison. Even President Obama told reporters the party needed fresh faces and new ideas to rebuild, though he did not mention anyone by name.
"He proves time and time again that he's a progressive champion with real ideas as to how to better the lives of Minnesotans and Americans across our country," Sen. Al Franken said on Monday. "When Keith encounters someone who says 'I'm not into politics,' he counters with 'Well, politics is into you.' "
Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean also has submitted his name for consideration. So has former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who briefly ran for president this year.
Jim Manley, a D.C.-based Democratic political operative from Minnesota, said Monday that DNC voting members should remember where Democrats lost voters — white, working-class people in the Rust Belt — when thinking about leadership.
"In light of the blue wall getting breached in the so-called Rust Belt, another question has got to be whether a very progressive, a very liberal African-American Muslim from Minnesota should be the face of the party," Manley said. "I don't think it should be an issue but it is something that folks should think about."
When asked about his religion and whether that plays a role in him seeking the leadership post, Ellison demurred.
"The Democratic Party will be the vehicle for people who labor daily who need a voice now," he said. "Because now we're in a situation where the billionaire doesn't just tell the president what to do, the billionaire is the president."
Ellison has been a leader in bolstering Democratic turnout in cities and has helped candidates across the country build nascent campaigns. He launched a get-out-the-vote "apartment" program that had staffers go door to door to register first-time voters, and has also helped build a "Souls to the Polls" movement in Minnesota and elsewhere that buses voters to polling places after church on Sundays.
Though he is in a reliably liberal district, he works to boost his own turnout to help others down the ballot.
"Congressman Ellison believes passionately that the way we win elections is the old-fashioned way — wearing out our shoe leather, going door to door, neighbor to neighbor, and talking about our values face to face with people," DFL Chairman Ken Martin posted on Facebook Monday. Ellison, he wrote, "could literally take the election cycle off and still win with huge margins, but every cycle he builds out an organization second-to-none with the aim of driving up turnout to help our statewide candidates."
Ellison says he isn't worried about balancing the work of being a full-time member of the U.S. House of Representatives with the rigors of running the party's day-to-day operations. He said he is prepared to put in "more than 40 hours a week" working for the party, which requires mostly fundraising and making TV rounds promoting Democratic talking points and, likely, challenging the Republican-controlled Congress and president next year.
"Here's the thing," he said. "I'm a hardworking person."