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Could The Left Stage a DNC Coup? 'There Has to Be a Complete Restructuring'

In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning win, emboldened progressives are moving quickly to fill the Democratic Party’s post-election power vacuum.
Image: Image: Donna Brazile, the acting Chair of the Democratic National Committee, talks to the media on the floor at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland
Donna Brazile, the acting Chair of the Democratic National Committee since the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, talks to the media on the floor at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 25, 2016.CARLOS BARRIA / Reuters

In the wake of Hillary Clinton's stunning loss this week, progressives are moving quickly to fill the power vacuum left in the Democratic Party and eyeing a takeover of the Democratic National Committee, with Rep. Keith Ellison gaining momentum as the left's apparent candidate of choice to lead it.

The next chair of the DNC will play a key leadership role as the party builds itself back from defeat, and their election early next year will be a key test in the struggle for control of the party between the so-called establishment and a more populist wing that largely backed Bernie Sanders in the primary.

Congressman Keith Ellison.Getty Images

Less than 48 hours out from the election, an unusually rapid consolidation already seems to be occurring around Ellison, the co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, who had been quietly discussing his interest in the chairmanship before the election.

Meanwhile, former DNC Chair Howard Dean said he would be interested in serving again. "The Dems need organization and focus on the young. Need a fifty State strategy and tech rehab. I am in for chairman again," Dean said on Twitter.

Related: Democrats Try to Salvage What They Can From Wreckage of 2016 Election

Dean's DNC tenure has been widely praised, though he's drifted a bit from the progressive message he embraced during his 2004 presidential campaign and was an early and vocal Clinton endorser.

Ellison has not declared his candidacy and it's unclear who else might run, but Sen. Bernie Sanders and a number of progressives groups indicated they favored Ellison Thursday.

"You cannot be a party which on one hand says we're in favor of working people, we're in favor of the needs of young people but we don't quite have the courage to take on Wall Street and the billionaire class. People do not believe that. You've got to decide which side you're on,” Sanders told the AP in an interview endorsing Ellison.

Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist who took over as interim chair after Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz abruptly stepped down from the post this summer, has said she will not run for a full term as DNC chair.

Donna Brazile, the acting Chair of the Democratic National Committee since the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, talks to the media on the floor at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 25, 2016.CARLOS BARRIA / Reuters

"The DNC must clean house,” executive director Ilya Sheyman said in a statement expressing support for Ellison. “At the same time, the DNC must connect with the grassroots of the party base that wants the party to reject corporate influence and advance an inclusive, progressive agenda.”

Progressive Change Campaign Committee also gave some support the idea of Ellison, with co-founder Stephanie Taylor calling him "one of many good people who could lead the DNC in a new and more winning direction."

"The Democratic establishment had their chance with this election. It’s time for new leadership of the Democratic Party — younger, more diverse, and more ideological — that is hungry to do things differently, like leading a movement instead of dragging people to the polls," Taylor said in a statement.

The party will embark on an official post-mortem project to analysis the results of the election and make recommendations for the future, but there has been no timeline set for when that autopsy process will begin or who might lead it, according to a DNC official.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, the other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, declined to speak about Ellison's candidacy Thursday, but called for the kinds of changes at the DNC that Ellison might bring.

“There has to be a complete restructuring of that committee,” he told NBC News. “The DNC cannot continue as it is as if nothing occurred.”

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Neil Sroka of Democracy for America, which grew out of Dean’s presidential bid, said his group would not endorse in the DNC chair’s race until they had seen all the candidates.

“That said, Keith Ellison has been a stalwart ally of the progressive grassroots and is definitely someone that we’re very happy is thinking about possibly pursuing a race for chair,” Sroka said. “The Democratic Party establishment that tried to ensure the primary was over before it even started has zero moral authority in the fight for who will be the next party chair."

Related: Republican Battles Won't End With Election Night Victories

Before the election, which Democrats assumed Hillary Clinton would win, those said to be eyeing the post included EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock, Reps. Xavier Becerra and Steve Israel, who each held leadership posts in the House, and South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, among others.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who had been seen as a front runner, seemed to take herself out of the running last week when she called for a younger and more diverse pick — but that could have been influenced by a desire for a Clinton administration post, which is now not an option.

The committee’s primary roles includes fundraising, messaging, and maintaining key databases, but it has not in recent years had a major field organizing capacity, which Grijalva said is a must.

Ellison became the first Muslim-American elected to Congress in 2006, and has risen to become a prominent national progressive voice as one of the first members of Congress to endorse Sanders.

In his native Minneapolis, Ellison worked on innovative ways to contact low-income voters in inner cities who often don’t turn out in elections.

Supporters have resurfaced a clip from July of 2015 when Ellison was practically laughed off a TV set for saying Trump could win the Republican nomination. “I know you don’t believe,” ABC host George Stephanopoulos replied.

However, many Democrats objected to putting a House member in charge of the DNC after Wasserman Shultz' tenure, since it complicated relationships with congressional leadership. And the chair is traditionally a major party fundraiser, which might be at odds with the left's objects to big money-in-politics.

Post-election losses are typically a time of major rebuilding for parties. Dean, who ran as a progressive in the 2004 Democratic primary, took over as chairman of the party in 2005 after nominee John Kerry lost the presidential race. Before him, Terry Mcauliffe took over after the party lost the 2000 and raised the money to build it's current headquarters.