As Democrats get closer to their party’s late February leadership election, Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman hopeful Pete Buttigieg feels emboldened by nationwide protests aimed at the new Trump administration. 

The South Bend, Ind., mayor, one of a handful of candidates running to lead the party, points to the success of last month’s Women’s March on Washington as proof of the energy that the party can tap as it continues to oppose President Trump.  

“I have never seen our side so energized — not within the party, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be,” Buttigieg told a small group of reporters at a Thursday fundraiser in Washington. 

“The key is to make sure we position the Democratic Party within the broader landscape of progressive action, instead of the other way around … as long as we are side by side with these folks.”

For Buttigieg, Democrats have to capture the energy of the movement and direct it toward electoral action, reminding people that a lawmaker drawing protests and rowdy town hall opposition now could be on the ballot in less than two years. 

“You can’t just show up to these grassroots groups months before the election,” Buttigieg said. “We’ve got to start the relationship now.”

Buttigieg, an openly gay Navy Reserve officer and Rhodes scholar, swung through Washington ahead of this weekend’s DNC forum in Baltimore. That forum will mark last time that candidates will address the party together before the Feb. 25 vote in Atlanta. 

Speaking on Thursday to a packed room in the small, veteran-owned bakery in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, Buttigieg argued that Democrats lost their way during the 2016 presidential race by focusing on Trump instead of on their own values. That misplaced energy, Buttigieg said, hurt the party’s relationship with those in blue-collar workers and red-state voters. 

“I had one too, the ‘I’m With Her’ button and T-shirt. We were saying, ‘I’m with her.’ But once it became clear who the other guy was going to be, it became ‘I’m against him.’ It was all about him. But the people where I was living were saying: “But hey, who is with me?” he said. 

“[Trump] was talking to people in communities like that. It was all bullshit, but at least he was talking. And we have to make sure we do the same, even in the counties we aren’t going to win.”  

He admitted the open secret in the race: that most of the candidates share fairly similar prescriptions for how to cure the ills of the party. All of the leading candidates, for example, back devolving power back to state party leaders and praise former DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s “50-State Strategy.”

“Some stories have been written suggesting there’s a convergence, that a lot of people are saying more and more of the same things,” he said. 

“Everybody brings something to this race and we’ve got some great competitors. But I think I have the best attributes to deliver on what all 10 of us say has got to be done.” 

Both in his remarks to the crowd and in his conversation with reporters after, Buttigieg warned about the growing factions in the race. 

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, backed by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Flynn reports ‘very troubling’ DNC hopeful Buttigieg wants to capitalize on protest energy Many of Trump’s policies will further intensify income inequality MORE (I-Vt.), is seen as the choice of the progressive wing of the party. Meanwhile, former Barack ObamaBarack ObamaAppeals court judge wants vote on whether to reconsider travel ban ruling DNC hopeful Buttigieg wants to capitalize on protest energy Obamas sign with agency for speaking gigs MORE administration Labor Secretary Tom Perez, backed by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDNC hopeful Buttigieg wants to capitalize on protest energy Bring Democracy to America’s nuclear weapons Conway’s ethics foul would get you fired in an Obama White House MORE, is viewed as an establishment pick tied to Obama and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonReport: Trump taunts Dems for letting ‘Pocahontas’ Warren become ‘face of your party’ FEC commissioner to Trump: Show evidence of voter fraud Spicer: White House ‘disgusted by CNN’s fake news’ MORE

Sanders’s recent statement blasting Biden for his endorsement reinvigorated tensions left over from the 2016 Democratic primary race between Sanders and Clinton. 

Buttigieg admitted there are “signs of this devolving into a factional struggle.”  

“I didn’t love living through the 2016 primary the first time, I don’t know why we’d want to reopen those wounds. Yeah, we’ve got to learn from our experiences, but it doesn’t mean we have to get trapped in the past.”  

Buttigieg declined to expand on whether he was referring to Sanders’s letter.

With the large field of seven major candidates, it’s possible that no one candidate gets the majority on the first ballot in Atlanta. That could create a lane for a candidate outside the favorites — Ellison and Perez.

Buttigieg is eager to be the compromise candidate, comparing the possibility to when he emerged victorious in his five-way race for mayor. 

“It’s definitely possible we can find ourselves going through multiple ballots and I’m offering a potential consensus choice,” he said. 

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