Democrats head into two key off-year elections on Tuesday with their escalating intraparty feud stealing the spotlight from their policy disagreements with Republicans.
Even as top Democrats tried Sunday to keep the focus on the critical gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez wound up sparring with his predecessor, longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
Mr. Perez denied that the Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders was rigged, reacting to Ms. Brazile’s disclosure in her forthcoming book that the DNC had entered into a joint fundraising agreement with the Clinton campaign a year before she won the presidential nomination.
Meanwhile, Ms. Brazile declared Sunday that those who want her to keep quiet about what went on behind the scenes during the 2016 primary race can “go to hell.”
“For those who are telling me to shut up — they told Hillary that a couple months ago. You know what I tell them? Go to hell,” Ms. Brazile said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I’m going to tell my story.”
The revelations about Mrs. Clinton’s behind-the-scenes clout over DNC finances has only widened the gulf between the party’s establishment Clinton wing and populist Sanders wing, leaving the Democrats badly in need of the cure for all political ills: victory.
Mr. Perez “needs some wins,” said Samuel Ronan, a Democrat who is running for a House seat in Ohio next year. “He needs a victory, and if he doesn’t get it, we may very well see him being pushed out of power.”
He said the Democratic Party “is crumbling apart.”
Former DNC Executive Committee member Barbra Siperstein, whom Mr. Perez ousted this year in a purge of party leadership, said, “He’s got to show results. That’s on his shoulders and the people who support him.
“I certainly have concerns about party unity,” she said.
Pollster Stan Greenberg said Democrats are repeating mistakes this year that Hillary Clinton made against Donald Trump last year. In an interview with The New Yorker, Mr. Greenberg pointed to Ralph Northam, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Virginia.
“We have a candidate running as Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Greenberg said. “He is running on the same kinds of issues and has the same kind of view of the world. It’s the Republicans who talk about the economy, not the Democrats.”
The author of the article, Susan Glasser, said every Democratic and independent analyst she interviewed believes “the party remains in serious danger of another electoral catastrophe.”
In his report by the polling firm Democracy Corps in late October, Mr. Greenberg and partner James Carville said, “The Democratic Party today is divided over whether it wants to focus on the economy or identity.”
Before leaving for a trip to Asia on Friday, President Trump said the Justice Department should investigate whether the Democratic primary was rigged and said Sanders supporters “have every right to be apoplectic of the complete theft” of the primary by Mrs. Clinton.
In an email to DNC members, Mr. Perez tried to downplay the explosive revelations from Ms. Brazile. He said the kind of joint fundraising agreement between the Clinton campaign and the DNC was available to any presidential candidate, at least in theory.
While Mrs. Clinton was the only candidate who raised the funding with the DNC, he said, “the money would have benefited any candidate coming out of the presidential primary process.”
But in an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Perez said that “we have to earn the trust of the voters during the process of the Democratic primary. We fell short in that, undeniably. And I accepted that responsibility.”
He said the party has made reforms, including plans to announce the Democratic candidate debate schedule in 2020 “before we know who the candidates are.”
Still, he said, “the No. 1 goal has to be to be fair and transparent.”
Ms. Brazile acknowledged Sunday that she considered pushing for the removal of Mrs. Clinton from the presidential ticket and replacing her with then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden after Mrs. Clinton fainted in New York City on Sept. 11, 2016.
She said the Clinton campaign was “anemic” and had the “odor of failure.”
The former interim chairwoman said she considered pairing Mr. Biden with Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, but she couldn’t go through with it.
“I thought of Hillary, and all the women in the country who were so proud of and excited about her,” Ms. Brazile wrote in her book. “I could not do this to them.”
Some Democratic operatives have speculated that Mrs. Clinton’s fundraising agreement with the DNC may have prevented Mr. Biden from entering the primary.
Former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said the Sanders campaign signed a similar agreement with the DNC and that both campaigns did so because the DNC was broke after President Obama left it millions of dollars in debt.
“They weren’t going to make payroll,” Mr. Mook said on CNN. “They were not going to be able to transfer down money to the state parties to keep them operational. Both the Sanders and the Clinton campaigns signed joint fundraising agreements. The only difference was Sanders didn’t raise any money, and we did.”
Former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said although most Sanders campaign staffers knew the DNC preferred Mrs. Clinton, they didn’t know the extent of the Clinton campaign’s control of the national party.
“It was obviously a shocking revelation,” Mr. Weaver said on CNN. “It was pretty clear that they were on the Clinton side. I don’t think any of us imagined that there was actually a formal arrangement giving the Clinton campaign control of the DNC.”
Aside from the potential fallout for Mr. Perez, Ms. Brazile’s disclosures have spurred more calls in the party for reforms. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat who was vice chair of the DNC, said the party “must get rid of the undemocratic system of superdelegates, who have the power to swing an election, making up one-third of the votes any candidate needs to secure the nomination.”
“In short, we need to break the influence and control that a few special interests and party insiders have consolidated, and instead empower the voices of the people,” she said in an email to supporters.
She said the DNC is riven by “counterproductive infighting and name-calling.”
The DNC will hold a meeting next month to consider recommendations from a “unity commission” that was formed last year from supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders.
DNC Vice Chairman Keith Ellison, a House lawmaker from Minnesota who challenged Mr. Perez for the chairmanship, said Democrats “must heed the call for our party to enact real reforms that ensure a fair, open and impartial nominating process in elections to come.”
“I’m committed to working with Chairman Perez to make the DNC more transparent and accountable to the American people, whether that’s by ensuring that debates are scheduled far ahead of time or by guaranteeing that the terms of joint fundraising agreements give no candidate undue control or influence over the party,” Mr. Ellison said in a statement.
Many Democrats are calling for a rule that would prohibit the kinds of fundraising agreements that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign struck with the DNC under the chairmanship of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
But some Democrats openly doubt that Mr. Perez is capable of leading the party out of its crisis.
“As a leader, he leaves too much to be desired,” said Mr. Ronan, a candidate for the 1st Congressional District in Ohio who also was a candidate for the DNC chairmanship this year. “We need someone to reform the party, and he’s certainly not that. When it’s crumbling apart, you have to fix it, and he’s not.”
He said he is not sure the Democratic Party can be salvaged.
“If the party continues along the lines it is currently, if Tom Perez does not change his tactics or he gets pushed out and the replacement doesn’t fix it, the party is going to fold,” he said. “It’s going to collapse.”
Ms. Siperstein, of Edison, New Jersey, who supported Mr. Ellison for the chairmanship, was the DNC’s first transgender member. She said the party’s populist wing is too impatient for change.
“The progressive folks, the Elizabeth Warren folks, should have been involved all along,” she said. “You can’t come around every four years and suddenly say, ‘Do it our way.’ Be involved in a constructive way. Sometimes the doors may be closed, and then you need to change tactics.”
Mr. Ronan said Mr. Ellison is better qualified to make the significant reforms needed, such as spending more on grass roots in rural areas and mentoring more young candidates. He said the DNC should hold public elections of its executive board and national delegates.
“Right now the party has a crisis of image, and they can’t have insiders choosing insiders to lead the insiders,” he said. “If you really want to reach out to the progressive movement, you have to have a truly public election. Otherwise, you’re offering platitudes and band-aid fixes.”
Republicans appeared to be stunned by the disclosures about the extent of Mrs. Clinton’s power within the party apparatus. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, called the situation “amazing.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that. We all said that the Clintons thought they lived above the rules, but this takes the cake,” Mr. Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is pretty amazing.”
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