WASHINGTON — Democrats are having trouble surmounting differences over the bitter 2016 election amid revelations of a contemplated effort to replace Hillary Clinton as the presidential nominee, deepening party strife just before Tuesday’s closely watched Virginia governor’s race.
The fate of that bellwether election will likely make a weighty statement about Democratic prospects in 2018 and beyond.
“Everywhere I go right now, we’re focused on elections … and what the people are telling me is they want to know how they’re going to get their good jobs back, how are they going to get health care,” said Tom Perez, the party’s chairman, on Sunday.
Perez then launched into an attack on the 2016 claims of his predecessor, interim DNC leader Donna Brazile, as “ludicrous” and “without merit.”
The dueling across the Sunday news show platforms was triggered by the disclosure that Brazile, the DNC chair during the final months of the campaign, considered an effort to replace Clinton with then-Vice President Joe Biden because of health concerns.
Brazile, who claimed “tremendous pressure” to devise a backup ticket after Clinton fainted at an event, pushed back at critics: “Go to hell. I’m going to tell my story.”
The dispute was spurred by Brazile’s revelations in a memoir being released Tuesday and reported on by The Washington Post. It reflected simmering tensions between establishment and insurgent wings that will set the party’s future course on issues from its platform to the primary schedule and use of superdelegates — party leaders and elected officials who get a say in the nomination — in the 2020 presidential race.
“One of the things, as we go forward, is to give more power to the grass roots in all this,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, urging Democrats not to “relitigate elections.”
It comes in the final hours before Virginia’s governor race, where Republicans have not won a significant statewide election since 2009. The Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, is casting the race to voters as a way to repudiate the policies of President Donald Trump against Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman.
But Northam has received lukewarm support within his own party from the progressive group Democracy for America.
A win for Democrats could help defuse Brazile’s book and give the party important momentum. A loss would be a big blow to other Democrats plotting a similar anti-Trump strategy for the 2018 midterm congressional races and likely spur louder calls for radical changes in the DNC heading into 2020.
“We have to make sure that everybody feels at the end of the process that everyone got a fair shake,” Perez said.
Also Tuesday, there is a New Jersey governor’s race, where Democrat Phil Murphy holds a solid lead over Republican Lt. Gov Kim Guadagno to succeed departing Gov. Chris Christie.
In her book, Brazile writes that she considered initiating Clinton’s removal after the candidate collapsed while leaving a 9/11 memorial service in New York City, and Brazile contemplated a dozen combinations to replace Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. Brazile says she settled on Biden and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker as having the best chance of defeating Republican Trump.
Brazile says the larger issue was that Clinton campaign was “anemic” and had taken on “the odor of failure.”
But, she says, “I thought of Hillary, and all the women in the country who were so proud of and excited about her. I could not do this to them.”
The revelations elicited a strong rebuttal from Clinton’s former campaign staffers. An open letter signed by more than 100 people said they “do not recognize the campaign” that Brazile “portrays in the book.”
The Clinton staffers responded they were “shocked to learn” that Brazile would consider overturning the will of Democratic voters. “It is particularly troubling and puzzling that she would seemingly buy into false Russian-fueled propaganda, spread by both the Russians and our opponent, about our candidate’s health.”
On Sunday, Perez echoed the complaints, saying Brazile never had authority to replace the ticket because Clinton was not incapacitated. Under party rules, a DNC head can call a special meeting to fill a “vacancy” on the national ticket in the event of disability in coordination with Democratic leaders of Congress and Democratic governors, but only the full DNC can fill the vacancy. At the time, Clinton had revealed she was suffering from pneumonia.
In an excerpt published earlier by Politico, Brazile had written that she believed a joint fundraising agreement signed between Clinton and the DNC “looked unethical” and that she felt Clinton had too much influence on the party during a competitive Democratic primary with rival Bernie Sanders.
Perez issued a weekend statement saying he and the DNC leadership were committed to ensuring that the nomination process in 2020 will be “unquestionably fair and transparent.” He also said the debate schedule would be decided in advance rather than negotiated after all candidates had entered the race, and that all joint fundraising agreements would be transparent.
Still in play are recommendations of a Unity Reform Commission, created in a concession to supporters of Sanders to re-examine the nominating process, including the role of superdelegates and primary scheduling.
Perez spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Brazile appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” and Pelosi was on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.