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DNC Race Shakeup: Ray Buckley to Exit, Endorse Keith Ellison

Rep. Keith Ellison talks DNC campaign 8:39

In the biggest shakeup of the Democratic leadership race in months, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley plans to drop his bid to be the party's national chairman and throw his support behind Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, NBC News has learned.

With just a week left before Democratic National Committee members gather in Atlanta to cast their ballots, the move could have far-reaching consequences both for the election and the future of the party.

"While it was a tremendous honor to run for DNC Chair over the past few months, I am proud to throw my support behind Keith so we can ensure that the next Chair of the DNC is dedicated to investing in and strengthening state parties and ensuring that the DNC is an accountable organization," Buckley said in a statement. "As I've talked to the DNC membership, it's clear Keith has widespread support, and I know as our next DNC Chair Keith will successfully unite and grow our party."

Image: Ray Buckley
Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, takes the stage to address a forum on the future of the Democratic Party, featuring candidates running to be the the next chair of the Democratic National committee, in Denver on Dec. 2, 2016. David Zalubowski / AP

Ellison, a frontrunner in the race along with former Labor Sec. Tom Perez, is expected to give Buckley, who may run for reelection as the chairman of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, his ear on state party operations if Ellison wins next Saturday's election.

"When we have a successful outcome in Atlanta next week, I have asked him to lead our effort to provide the support and resources the state parties need in a new and innovative 57 state strategy," Ellison said in a statement.

"More importantly, the model that Ray has built in New Hampshire and his work as the President of the ASDC is something that we need as we rebuild all 57 state parties," Ellison added. "That is why I am proud to have Ray's support."

That support could be a major boost for Ellison in his struggle against Perez.

Full Interview: Perez Makes His Case for DNC Chair Position 8:08

It comes during a week in which Ellison picked up several key labor endorsements and aggressively pushed back on the Perez campaign's claim that they were within striking distance of a winning majority.

But Buckley's support may also come with charges of back-room dealing for Ellision, an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who campaigned against supposed conspiring at the DNC during his presidential bid last year. Dealmaking is common these kind of races, but rumors about negotiations between the Ellison and Buckley camps provoked some negative reactions from DNC members in emails exchanged this week.

Buckley is the first candidate leave the 10-candidate field, which has been more or less deadlocked for months.

Related: Race for DNC Chair Heads Behind Closed Doors in Final Stretch

With 447 votes at stake next Saturday, no one candidate is expected to earn a majority of votes on the first ballot, unless the field winnows. That means it will likely take multiple rounds of ballots until one candidate emerges with a majority and thus victory.

Ellison this week was also spotted meeting with another candidate, Sally Boynton Brown, the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party.

Buckley's support was sought by many candidates.

In addition to running the Democratic party in New Hampshire for the past 10 years, where he oversaw big victories for the party, Buckley leads the national association of state party chairmen and has been a vocal advocate for their needs.

He is unknown outside Democratic circles, however, so he made no secret of the fact that he was more interested in operating the party's machinery that being its public face.

"From the moment I stepped into this race, I made it clear that the top two priorities of the next DNC Chair must be to strengthen state parties and reform the DNC," Buckley said in his statement.

In that way, he could complement Ellison, who has emerged as a prominent progressive voice in the party.

DNC candidate: 'The party needs to recruit good talent' 5:06

Ellison entered the race early and with strong support ranging from Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. But he quickly hit snags over old statements he made about Israel, allowing Perez to catch up quickly when the former Obama cabinet official got into the race a month later.

Since the beginning of the year, the two campaigns have been competing to roll out endorsements and woo DNC members, but neither has yet earned the commitments of support from the 224 DNC members needed to win.

This week, Ellison's campaign touted fresh backing from the president of the nation's largest union, the National Education Association, and the country's second largest union, SEIU. Ellison also earned a nod from Christine Quinn, the former New York City Council speaker and Hillary Clinton ally who is also a DNC member, and noted they have the support of every DNC member in five different states.

Perez's campaign, meanwhile, emailed supporters to announce they had commitments from 180 DNC members, putting them close to the majority. Ellison's campaign pushed back hard on that claim, saying they were confident they would win next Saturday.

With nine candidates left in the race, more will have to head for the exit before one can be declared the winner.