ATLANTA (AP) - South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison is exiting the race for Democratic National Committee chairman and throwing his support to Tom Perez, solidifying the former Labor Secretary's place as the front-runner in a still-volatile contest.
Harrison said he simply lacked support to secure the 224 votes needed to capture the chairmanship. Party leaders will vote on 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," he said in a statement.
Harrison had the backing of 27 DNC members, according to independent Democratic strategists tracking the race. It's unclear how many of those votes will now go to Perez. He has support from about 205 members of the 447-member national party committee, according to the strategists, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss vote tallies.
"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," Perez said in a statement.
In an interview before he dropped out, Harrison said one of his top priorities is having the national party shower Republican-run states in the South and the West with more attention and financial backing.
He said if he abandoned his own bid and made an endorsement, it would be only after concluding that another candidate had the same commitment. "The path back to a majority in the House and a deeper bench for the party as a whole has to run through those states," he said.
The tight race between Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman, marks the first heavily contested battle to run the organization in recent history.
Ellison, backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, has the support of about 153 members, the strategists said. Ellison spokesman Brett Morrow blasted the count as "totally inaccurate" and said his camp remains "incredibly confident."
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for another candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, also disputed the count. Buttigieg is touting his recent endorsement from former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, widely regarded as a successful party leader.
But neither the Ellison nor Buttigieg campaigns would release their own tracking numbers, and multiple other campaigns said the strategists are accurately reflecting the state of the still-competitive race.
The counts have Buttigieg and Sally Boynton Brown, executive director of the Idaho party, combining for fewer than 20 votes, with remaining DNC members uncommitted.
The contest comes with Democrats facing a power deficit in Washington and around the country after years of losses in Congress, governor's mansions and statehouses, while also having no unifying national leader since former President Barack Obama left the White House.
Hoping to present a positive vision of their future, the DNC is tapping three rising political stars at the forefront of the party's resistance to President Donald Trump to address their party meeting this weekend.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who's expected to be at the helm of many of the legal battles against the new administration, will deliver the keynote address. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who narrowly lost his 2016 Senate race, will also deliver remarks.
The three men represent glimmers of hope for Democrats after years of electoral losses. During Obama's presidency, the party lost more than 1,030 seats in state legislatures, governor's mansions and Congress.
Walsh, a former union official, has gone hard after Trump, calling the president's rhetoric "a direct attack on Boston's people, Boston's strength, and Boston's values" in a fiery January speech. Kander recently launched a new national voting rights organization and Becerra has unabashedly argued that his state is ready for "a fight" with the new administration.
"The headwinds to roll back our nation's progress today are strong but together, we can and must ensure all Americans know: we have their back!" Becerra plans to tell DNC members, according to excerpts of his remarks.
Lerer reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Manchester, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.