Inside the DNC chief’s ‘hard’ attempt to avoid a midterm defeat
It’s not particularly close to the White House. He never won a state office or a seat in Congress. And just last year, he lost a high-profile Senate race by double digits.
But if you ask him, Jaime Harrison will tell you that he is uniquely prepared to lead a Democratic party facing fierce Republican hurdles, intense infighting and the burden of history heading into next year’s midterm elections.
He will tell you about his impoverished childhood in rural South Carolina, eating cereal with water instead of milk before eventually becoming a lawyer, congressional aide, first president of the Black State Party, amazing fundraiser, and now the 45-year-old father of two Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
It will also tell you about the extreme pressure he feels to stave off political catastrophe in 2022.
“Let me tell you, man, it’s a lot of weight. It’s a massive weight,” Harrison said in an interview from a makeshift TV studio in the basement of his South Carolina home. That will be the challenge.”
Harrison leads a party in peril.
A year after taking control of Congress and the White House, Democrats are suffering painful losses in many states in the last elections not last year that raised serious concerns about a much larger Republican wave in 2022. Suddenly, Democratic optimism kicked in this spring . Doubt replaced it as party officials contemplated whether they had the right message, the right messengers, and the right political strategy.
Finger pointing has already begun.
DNC members, who accepted Harrison’s selection of President Joe Biden for president in January, began grumbling about his limited involvement with ordinary activists and state party officials who do much of the Democratic Party’s day-to-day heavy work. Policy. Others believe the White House is not giving him the freedom he needs to do the job well.
Some allies worry that Biden’s team has not allowed Harrison to choose the members he wants, appoint his preferred staff, or direct the party’s messages.
“Jaime Harrison knows how to do this job,” said Representative Jim Claiborne of DS.
Claiborne declined to criticize the White House outright, but questioned whether Harrison was “handicapped by people who have never run for anything.”
The White House declined to comment publicly, while Harrison played down any tension as a simple matter of navigating a new relationship with Biden’s top political envoy, Jean O’Malley Dillon. Harrison said they meet two to three times a month, and after getting to know each other better, they build a friendship.
“Are there challenges that we all have to face in this process because the DNC is not usually involved in the midterm? Yes, there will always be, and there is now,” Harrison said. “I will keep pushing, I will keep creating, but Jane and I work hand in hand Regarding trying to make this work.”
These days, Harrison does most of his work out of the basement of his Columbia, South Carolina, home of the past five years. The DNC headquarters in Washington remains largely closed due to pandemic concerns. So, like the thousands of Americans who work from home, he’s balancing his work life with the demands of raising two young boys, scheduling video meetings with the White House and TV interviews about nap times, school activities, and even occasional COVID-19 concerns.
From his base at his home 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of Washington, he admitted that he’s resisting massive controversies. The political parties that control the White House have lost seats in Congress in nearly every midterm election in the modern era. Democrats are clinging to a narrower majority in both houses of Congress.
Opinion polls indicate that there is cause for concern.
Gallup found in September that 55% of Americans have a negative view of the Democratic Party, the highest disapproval rate in five years. At the same time, a majority of Americans believe that the nation is on the wrong track with the Democrats in power.
Democrats’ fears deepened earlier this month after losses in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Trump’s party advantages have eroded in the suburbs, while their struggle has worsened in rural areas.
Harrison dismissed the popular takeaway from the out-of-year defeat that Democrats should no longer focus on former President Donald Trump as the cornerstone of their message to voters. This strategy failed in Virginia, among other states.
“The odds are that Donald Trump will run for president in 2024,” Harrison said. “He’s the most likely candidate for the Republican nomination.” “And so I think it would be reckless to say, ‘Let’s forget Donald Trump because he’s not here. His presence will be felt throughout the first half of 2022.”
At the same time, Democrats believe that a positive message that focuses on their legislative accomplishments will also raise their profile — if they can effectively sell their accomplishments to voters.
Earlier in the year, Democrats issued a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, which sent $1,400 in checks to most Americans and provided billions more to support people and businesses affected by the pandemic. On November 6, Democrats, and some Republicans, approved the largest infrastructure package in generations, a trillion-dollar measure that will fund years of major construction projects in every state in the country. Biden will sign the bill into law on Monday.
Biden’s larger plan for social spending remains precarious, featuring unprecedented government funding to tackle climate change, child poverty and health care.
A week after the Democrats approved the infrastructure package, the party has yet to unveil a comprehensive plan to boost its achievements, which polls show is very popular despite pockets of conservative opposition.
In an effort to start things off, Harrison did four cable TV interviews last week. At the same time, some DNC leaders appeared on television or radio. Elected officials in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan held press conferences to highlight the infrastructure bill.
Harrison said the humble beginning is intentional.
He said the party was planning a “slow-mature” strategy to sell the infrastructure package, a shift from the rush of interest surrounding the passage of the Democratic-backed pandemic relief plan earlier in the year.
“What’s the point of jumping high into this now, then backing off in December, and then by February or March, people are like, ‘What?’ Harrison said what happened? “The goal is to burn and preserve this in the minds of the American people as we move forward into the mid-term of 2022.”
Soon, the DNC will start rolling out a new wave of TV, radio and digital ads featuring a mix of Biden and Americans every day talking about the impact the infrastructure package has had on their lives. The party will then focus on highlighting the flood of innovations nationwide and cutting the ribbon expected in the subsequent months.
“This has to be something long-term and sustainable,” Harrison said. “It can’t just be a flash in the pan.”
Outside of Washington, some Democrats aren’t quite sure the DNC should focus on selling infrastructure at all — at least, not now.
John Verdigo, a North Carolina DNC member who describes himself as Harrison’s friend, said he’s hearing their grip from other members who are concerned that Harrison is not engaging enough with local officials on the ground in key states. Others worry that he is simply repeating talking points in the White House rather than addressing the most pressing issues that affect people’s daily lives.
“He’s selling it, but people aren’t buying it,” Verdigo said of the Democrats’ accomplishments. It’s not his fault because he’s getting his message from the White House. The infrastructure is great and everything, but that’s out of reach, and I’m paying $17 for a family package of chicken wings.”
“It is very disappointing to see such a man of great potential being almost handcuffed,” Verdigo added.
Meanwhile, memories of 2010 linger.
That year, Democrats went into Barack Obama’s first midterm elections as they struggled to sell another major policy achievement, health care law now known as “Obamacare,” to frustrated voters. The Democrats eventually lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who led the DNC from 2009 to 2011, says much of the responsibility for selling Biden’s accomplishments will fall to Harrison, even if the White House ultimately controls big decisions about messaging and strategy.
“The leader of the party is the president, and when he comes out, he has the loudest mic of anyone else,” Kane said. “But the head of the DNC is making many, many political events and many, many calls to mobilize forces.”
“The fact that he’s a young African American, and from a country that isn’t the bluest, gives him the ability to connect with a lot of people,” Kane added. “It’s very effective at that.”
Harrison has another advantage that Kane didn’t have in 2010.
Keane said Democrats struggled to sell health care reform to voters midterm in part because Obama personally did not want to sell the party’s achievements. Kaine suggested that the Biden White House appears more committed to ensuring voters give Democrats credit for major accomplishments on the pandemic and infrastructure — and Biden’s agenda to rebuild better, if approved.
But the well-publicized Democratic infighting on Capitol Hill between rival factions cast a shadow over the party’s message. And Harrison is worried.
He said it was critical for Democrats from the moderate and progressive wings of the party to meet on Capitol Hill to enact Biden’s agenda.
“All this infighting, it has to stop. We have to be on the same page,” he said. We pass these bills. He accomplished them, then descended upon the earth and sold them Hell.”
Harrison admits that he does not have enough influence on his own to persuade the warring factions in his party to work together. So far, he’s focused on the things he can control. A big part of that is fundraising.
Harrison was Biden’s choice to head the DNC, in part because of the extraordinary fundraising success he had in his underdog campaign against Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham last year. Harrison’s campaign raised $109 million, even though he lost the election by 10 percentage points.
By any measure, he brought that fundraising acumen to the DNC.
So far in 2021 alone, the DNC and its allied People’s Democratic Victory Fund have raised more than $127.6 million, the largest number ever in a non-presidential year. Commissions currently has $74.5 million in the bank.
The NDC also announced plans to invest $23 million in state parties before the 2022 midterm, including a new “Red State Fund” to put Republicans on the defensive in states with traditional Republican leanings.
The commitment to states’ parties has won praise from people such as Ray Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, who praised Harrison’s personal relationships with the commission’s large delegation of ordinary members and party leaders in the state. He noted that Harrison served as the Democratic president of South Carolina and then a senior assistant at the DNC before becoming the national president, which allowed him to develop relationships with members across the country.
“It has the endorsement of membership and the trust of members,” Buckley said. But we certainly realize that when you have the White House, there are different challenges. You are not a free agent.”
Meanwhile, Harrison has not lost sight of the big picture: History suggests that Democrats will soon lose their majorities in the House and Senate. But he insists there is hope for his party.
“We can break history. We can make our own history,” he said. “The question is whether we can all come together to do it. That is the real question.”
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