ATLANTA (CN) – South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison exited the race for Democratic National Committee chairman Thursday, and threw his support behind Tom Perez, solidifying the former labor Secretary’s place as the front-runner in what is now a seven-way contest.
Harrison, a staunch ally of Hillary Clinton throughout the Democratic primaries last year, said he simply couldn’t muster the support to secure the 224 votes needed to capture the chairmanship.
Party leaders will select their new chair on Saturday, the final day of the three-day meeting that began Thursday in Atlanta.
“We have a candidate for DNC chair who can unite the Democratic Party behind the goal of enacting progressive change, a candidate who can take the fight to Donald Trump and rebuild our party infrastructure, and a candidate whom I, as a voting member of the DNC, am proud to support: Tom Perez,” Harrison said.
Party insiders said Harrison had the backing of 27 DNC members when he dropped out, and that despite his endorsement, they are not obligated to vote for Perez.
Perez is currently believes to have the support of 205 members of the 447-member national party committee.
After Harrison left the race, Perez issued a statement that said “If elected chair, I will work with Jaime and others who are running for chair to bring our party together because it will take every one of us to unite a party that is suffering from a crisis of confidence and relevance.”
On Thursday night Perez received yet another endorsement, this one the entire Louisiana DNC delegation, including State Sen. Karen Peterson, and Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The moves come days after another candidate, New Hampshire Democratic Chair Ray Buckley, exited the race and threw his support to Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
Ellison is now considered Perez’s main rival for the chairmanship. Ellison is believed to have the support of about 153 members according to strategists interviewed by the Associated Press.
Inside Thursday’s DNC Small Business Council meeting, he was the clear favorite.
“Keith has a history of showing that the way we turn things around is we get people to go out and talk to people, that we get boots on the ground and we build that grassroots activism. We can’t beat [Republicans] on money, but we can beat them on people talking to people,” said Martha Laning, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and founder of the Wisconsin Business Advisory Council.
In a briefing with reporters as the DNC meeting opened Thursday morning, interim Chair Donna Brazile expressed hope that the election of a new chair will offer the stability the party desperately needs.
“The future is now,” she said. “We couldn’t be in a better place than Atlanta, which represents the future so well – the future of the South, the future direction of our nation … [It’s] a testament to how far we’ve come and how far we’ll go.”
In an allusion to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “march to the sea” that crippled Confederate forces in November 1864, hastening the end of the Civil War, Brazile described Atlanta as a “city that literally rose from the ashes,” drawing a parallel to the challenges her party now faces.
Friday’s agenda includes two general sessions and several side meetings as the party faithful haggle over Saturday’s vote and try to find a way to renew the party after a difficult 2016.
The actual vote for the new party chair begins at 10 a.m. Saturday morning.
To win on the first ballot, a candidate will have to secure at least 50 percent of the votes cast by the 442 eligible DNC voters. If no one secures the 222 votes they need to reach that threshold, multiple rounds of voting could follow. Most attendees expect that is exactly how the vote will go.
Several other contests will also be held on Saturday, races to fill seats on the party’s executive committee.
These include three at-large vice chairmen, vice chairman for civic engagement, treasurer, secretary, and national finance chair.
According to DNC by-laws, these seats must be equally distributed among men and women.
To help further illuminate the party’s strategy moving forward, several “rising star” speakers will present their visions for the future at today’s general sessions.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will deliver the keynote address, followed by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who is currently embroiled in a bribery scandal, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will also speak.
According to excerpts from his proposed remarks, Becerra plans to set the tone for the rest of the meeting by saying, “The headwinds to roll back our nation’s progress today are strong, but together, we can and must ensure that all Americans know: we have their back!”