U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL 23rd District) and chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) speaks to a reporter before the democratic debate on December 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The DNC has been criticized for the timing of democratic debates during the 2016 presidential race.
Democrats worry DNC head is 'too toxic'
01:48 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Sen. McCaskill to CNN: DNC chair 'is always a supportive role, not a starring role'

Adviser close to Clinton: "There is an exhaustion that comes with dealing with her"

CNN  — 

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is on increasingly thin ice as she risks losing key support to stay in her job.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of Hillary Clinton’s leading supporters on Capitol Hill, told CNN Wednesday that Wasserman Schultz is seen by supporters of Bernie Sanders as “part of the problem.” She said the Florida congresswoman is playing a “starring role” ahead of the Democratic National Convention in July, which is unusual for someone in her position.

“I think this will all get worked out over time,” she said. “The role of the DNC chair is always a supportive role, not a starring role, and I think that, because of what has occurred, it’s hard for her to avoid a starring role.”

She went on: “Everyone’s talking about how do we land this plan and when will the plane land and how bumpy will the landing be. And so …the DNC and its role is part of that discussion.”

Wasserman Schultz is at the center of the ongoing war between Clinton and Sanders after she criticized the Vermont senator on CNN last week. Wasserman Schultz said Sanders’ tepid response to chaos sparked by his supporters at the Nevada State Democratic Convention was “anything but acceptable” and compared it to a Donald Trump campaign event.

Sanders and his campaign condemned the outburst and death threats his supporters sent to the Nevada chairwoman, but refused to apologize for them. Wasserman Schultz said his decision to complain about how his supporters were treated in Nevada only “added more fuel to the fire.”

Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN Wednesday that Wasserman Schultz has been “unfair in many respects,” including the scheduling of debates on weekends when viewership is lower.

‘Pattern of conduct’

“There’s been a pattern of conduct which calls into question whether she can be the unifying force we need in the Democratic party,” Weaver told John Berman and Kate Bolduan on “At This Hour.” “I think someone else could play a more positive role.”

Wasserman Schultz told reporters Wednesday that she is focused on the fall campaign.

“I have to make sure that we prepare for the general election to elect a Democratic president,” she said. “That is what I am singularly focused on while we wrap up the Democratic primary.”

Still, two senior members of the Senate Democratic leadership team – Chuck Schumer of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan – refused to say Wednesday whether they have full confidence in Wasserman Schultz. Jon Tester of Montana, who runs the campaign arm for Senate Democrats, said said he had no opinion of whether Wasserman Schultz should stay.

“It’s a DNC thing and I just don’t pay that much attention to what she does to be honest with you,” Tester said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Sanders supporter, told reporters it’s up to congressional leadership, the President and the Democratic nominee to select the DNC chair, but made clear he’s not a fan of Wasserman Schultz’s tenure.

“When you are talking about unity, there has to be a different attitude” Grijalva said. “If she’s not capable of that attitude than you obviously find somebody who can.”

Three Democrats with ties to the party’s power centers – President Barack Obama, Clinton and Sanders – made clear that few are rooting for Wasserman Schultz’s survival at the DNC.

“If this is the one thing that provides unity, they would take that trade,” said one senior Democratic strategist, who has spoken to the White House. “Nobody is rushing to keep her.”

Another Democratic adviser close to Clinton said “there is an exhaustion that comes with dealing with her.”

The Democrats close to Obama and Clinton both acknowledged that removing Wasserman Schultz would be “messy” and “wouldn’t happen easily,” but it could certainly be done.

RELATED: Clinton looks to pop Trump’s populist appeal

A DNC member told CNN Wasserman Schultz expects to leave by the end of the year but “doesn’t want to be looked at as sacrificed at Bernie’s altar.”

There had been quite conversations over the last couple of months, the source said, about finding a place for Wasserman Schultz to “segue to” in order to make leaving the DNC palatable. But that didn’t happen.


For Democrats seeking Wasserman Schultz’s departure, a big potential downside would be picking her successor.

“What other person could be acceptable?” one of the Democratic sources said.

The Clinton team obviously wants someone they can trust, so finding a candidate who also meets Sanders’ approval could be a challenge. And some people on Sanders’ team also want to go deeper and remove Barney Frank from the DNC Rules Committee and Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy from Platform Committee.

That could topple the whole fight, with Obama and Clinton not eager to give Sanders as much control over a party he just joined.

Maintains support

Still, Wasserman Schultz maintains the support of some prominent Democrats, including Pelosi.

“DNC Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz enjoys the support of Members of the House Democratic Caucus for her leadership in unifying the party and winning in November,” Pelosi told CNN.

Pelosi reinforced those comments to reporters on Wednesday.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has endorsed Clinton, said removing Wasserman Schultz wouldn’t “help anything” and would open the door to more political influence of the DNC.

“You can go after any chair for anything they do in the future that is remotely supportive of a candidate that’s of your choice within your party,” she said. “Remember Bernie Sanders wasn’t a Democrat until he ran as one.”

RELATED: Trump protesters smash door, break through barriers

Former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter, whose city will host the Democratic convention in two months, defended Wasserman Schultz and compared Sanders to an ungrateful guest of the Democratic Party.

“This is like someone who comes to your house, says they don’t like the food, your TV is too small and I’m not particularly thrilled with what your kitchen looks like and then walks out complaining,” said Nutter, now a CNN contributor. “She’s been leading the party, he just became a Democrat and now suddenly believes that he should be in charge.”

And a Democratic senator cautioned that there does not appear to be a formal effort to oust Wasserman Schultz and noted any decision would ultimately fall to the campaign of Clinton.

“It is something the caucus has discussed,” another senior Senate Democratic aide said Tuesday on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about private discussions. The aide said there was only informal discussion among senators and no coordinated effort, but said “The question is: Has she become too toxic?”

The Hill first reported on the talks among Senate Democrats Tuesday and quoted a series of lawmakers who supported keeping Wasserman Schultz as the chairwoman.

The tension has been visible between Sanders, his campaign and the DNC for months.

Sanders has endorsed Wasserman Schultz’s primary challenger, Tim Canova, and began fundraising for him last week and the Sanders campaign has long fought with Wasserman Schultz, at one point suing the DNC over a voter data breach.

CNN’s Ted Barrett and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report