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Nearly four long months after losing power and still lacking a new chairman, Democrats are eager to get their leadership elections over with and move on with the business of rebuilding their party to challenge President Donald Trump.
“The timing certainly wasn't good to be having a leadership debate at the very moment when Trump has created one massive mess after another in Washington,” said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “There is a real hunger to make the decision, move forward, and have a fully operational party that gets to work.”
The Democratic National Committee will pick a new chairman in Atlanta on Saturday — the last possible weekend allowed by the party’s charter, which states the election must be held “prior to March 1” following an election.
The timing was intended to give party members ample time to consider their future after an unexpected loss.
But the length of the race has also allowed tensions to fester between the establishment and progressive wings. And it has hobbled the national party’s ability to both respond to Trump and capitalize on the unprecedented grassroots opposition to him.
For Democrats on both sides of the chairmanship fight, the election cannot end soon enough.
“In reality, one of the things I would certainly propose is we ought to hold these elections a lot sooner. We should have had this election back in December,” said Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, one of the two leading candidates in the race.
“I think we can catch up and play a very meaningful role,” Perez told NBC News. “But one of the learning lessons for me was we should have done this sooner.”
It’s a sentiment shared by supporters of Perez’ main rival, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who likely would have been advantaged by a shorter race.
Ellison entered the race the week after the November election, and had been making calls to DNC members even before that, while Perez didn’t even enter the race until mid-December.
“There are so many things that are essentially being put on hold or have band aids put on them until we get a new chair,” said Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb, who is supporting Ellison. “I expect if he's the chair or if anyone else is, all of us will be pulling together to make that transition as fast as possible.”
To be sure, this year’s timing is not far off the last open chairmanship race, in 2005, when Howard Dean was elected on February 12.
And the party has not been entirely disarmed in the interim. Its congressional leaders have been organizing opposition to Trump on Capitol Hill and speaking out in the news media. And the DNC itself has a well-staffed “war room” to respond to Trump.
Interim Chairwoman Donna Brazile has earned plaudits from Democrats for taking over the DNC from controversial former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and doing what she can with depleted staff.
But its organizational activities have been put on hold at a time when Democrats widely agree that the party can waste no time rebuilding its political infrastructure after eight years in which it was largely neglected.
“Right now, the problem I'm afraid of is we are at this critical moment and we have a very small window to handle this,” Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a candidate for national chairmanship told NBC News. “Has the opportunity totally missed us? No. But if we don't get our ducks in a row soon? Then yes.”
And the official Democratic party has been largely MIA as millions of people take to the streets to protest a Republican president.
“My major concern is that we’re going to lose these people before 2018 if we don’t somehow engage them soon in something other than going to the airport [to protest],” said Nancy Leiker, the chairman of the Johnson County Democratic Party in suburban Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the DNC’s communications and rapid response operations are not running at full capacity either. That limits its ability to, for instance, coordinate state and local Democrats to amplify a national message and vice versa.
“The DNC is sort of the glue that ties the federal, statehouses, and all the other candidates together, and because of the leadership dispute, that means it can't do that,” said Pepper, who is supporting Perez.
And some Democrats have jealously watched the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups rake in tens of millions of dollars from anxious progressives during the early days of Trump's presidency and wonder how much money their party may be leaving on the table without a fully operational finance machine.
The party has, however, found success with continued email fundraising please, according to sources.
Sensing the power vacuum, a bumper crop of new groups has sprung up since the election to organize liberals. They could further undercut the DNC at a time when official parties have already been losing their former monopoly status on partisan activity to super PACs and other groups that can collect bigger donations with fewer strings attached.
“The DNC is too busy trying elect their next chair. They haven't done anything that I'm aware of since the election,” said Daily Action creator Laura Moser, explaining part of her motivation for creating an app that gives people one action a day to resist Trump.
Still, the race will soon be over, a new chairman in place, and Democrats can make up for lost time.
“In six months, it won't matter at all,” said former chair Howard Dean. “I'm pretty confident that no matter who wins, they’re going to be able to set the place up fine. And the fog won't really lift until June anyway.”
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said he’s not concerned at all about the party missing a moment that galvanized activists.
“Trump does something to energize Democrats every day,” Hoyer told NBC News.
And former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also served as chairman of the DNC, said that while he understood the eagerness to get started, installing a chair earlier would not have made much of a difference.
“I don't think a new chair in December would have been anything but another voice in the cacophony of the voices criticizing various things about the Trump administration,” Rendell told NBC News.