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Race for DNC Chair Heads Behind Closed Doors in Final Stretch

Rep. Keith Ellison has reportedly offered a deal to another another candidate for their support.
The 2016 Democratic National Convention
Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, pauses while speaking during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 25.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

With the public forums winding down and just over a week of campaigning left, the race to lead the Democratic National Committee is moving from the public eye to the proverbial backroom.

No one candidate out of the 10 still in the running has yet to secure the promise of 224 party member votes needed to win a majority on the first round of balloting. That means the race’s two front-runners, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and former Labor Sec. Tom Perez, are looking to pick up support from lesser-known candidates.

Multiple sources told NBC News that Ellison has offered another candidate, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, a role leading DNC operations in exchange for his support.

"Nothing is off the table and we're seeing how we can best collaborate in a way that is best for the party," said one source close to Buckley.

Asked about the strategy for his campaign going forward, Buckley replied, "I'm confident the DNC will have a robust 50-state strategy.”’

A spokesperson for Ellison declined to comment.

Despite the national attention paid to the race after the party’s devastating loss in November’s election, the next leader of the party will ultimately be decided by just 447 people gathered a hotel ballroom in Atlanta a week from Saturday.

The intimate scale, and the fact only people who are by definition party insiders get a vote, can lend itself to dealmaking.

“The candidates that are getting a lot of traction go to the candidates that aren't getting a lot of traction and say, hey come on, I represent the values you represent, why don't you sign up with me and I'll make you a vice chair or something?” former DNC Chair Ed Rendell said an interview. “You know, just that kind of ordinary politics.”

As with any such deal, it’s unclear whether Buckley could reliably deliver his votes to Ellison. His supporters may have different ideas about who should lead the party, or may have promised their support to other candidates in the event that their first choice fell through.

“You can't offer much,” Rendell said, to coax supporters to follow you to another candidate.

With many DNC members choosing to keep their support private or hold off on endorsements, the state of the race is opaque.

Perez claimed in an email on Tuesday to have the support of 180 DNC members.

Ellison’s campaign manager, Jamie Long, responded by saying, “we are on track to win next week,” but declined to put out the number of their supporters.

All current whip counts, including those maintained by campaigns, are based on commitments, which don’t always materialize on the ballot.

Regardless, most Democrats expect the election will require multiple rounds of ballots in which lesser candidates are forced to drop out or cut deals until only one candidate emerges victorious.

Needless to say, it’s a peculiar election.

“This race is like a cross between running for president and running for for high school student council,” said one of the candidates, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigeig, during the party’s last official forum in Baltimore on Saturday.

Indeed, while the campaign trail has taken candidates across the country and to the sets of nationally television interviews, the actual campaigning happens in one-and-one conversations with DNC members outside the public eye.

At Baltimore forum, private discussions occurring behind closed doors in rooms assigned to each campaign one floor beneath the main hall were arguably as important as what the candidates said on stage.

Even in the public forum, multiple candidates report a second layer of politicking happening just under the surface as they found undecided DNC members in the audience to lock eyes with as they made a certain point they thought might resonate with that member.

And the arguments -- and promises -- made to woo those members often bare little resemblance to the public debate surrounding the race.

"I want people to step back and not think about the celebrity or the endorsements. Look at the job. This job is about party building,” said South Carolina Party Chair Jaime Harrison, another candidate for the national chairmanship. "All of the other stuff is just red herrings."

High-profile endorsers, from Sen. Bernie Sanders to former Vice President Joe Biden, don’t get to cast a ballot.

The last time the party held an open election for its chairman was in 2005. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had already emerged as the de facto winner before the actual voting even though both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the party’s leaders in the House and Senate, respectively, had endorsed Tim Roemer, a former congressman.

Dean was elected in a voice vote, without any ballots having to be cast.

This year’s DNC election is more likely to resemble the Republican National Committee’s leadership election in 2009, when it took seven ballots for Reince Priebus, now President Donald Trump's chief of staff, to emerge as the winner.