He is not particularly close to the White House. He’s never won statewide 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 he is uniquely prepared to lead a Democratic Party confronting fierce Republican obstruction, intense infighting and the weight of history heading into next year’s midterm elections.
He will tell you of his own childhood of poverty in rural South Carolina, where he ate cereal with water instead of milk before eventually becoming an attorney, a congressional aide, the first Black state party chair, a prodigious fundraiser and now, at 45 and the father of two young children, the chair of the Democratic National Committee.
He will also tell you about the intense pressure he feels to stave off political disaster in 2022.
“Let me tell you, man, it is a big weight. It is a tremendous weight,” Harrison said in an interview from a makeshift television studio in the basement of his South Carolina home. “My experiences are the experiences that we need at this moment to help really thread a needle. This is going to be challenging.”
Harrison is leading a party in peril.
A year after seizing control of Congress and the White House, Democrats are grappling with painful losses across several states in last week’s off-year elections that raised serious concerns about a much larger red wave in 2022. Suddenly, the Democratic optimism of this spring has been replaced by doubt as party officials openly ponder whether they have the right message, the right messengers and the right political strategy.
The finger-pointing has already begun.
DNC members, who accepted Harrison as President Joe Biden’s pick for chair in January, have begun to grumble about his limited engagement with the rank-and-file activists and state party officials who do much of the day-to-day heavy lifting in Democratic politics. Others believe the White House isn’t giving him the freedom he needs to do the job well.
Some allies worry aloud that Biden’s team hasn’t let Harrison select the members he wants, hire his preferred staff or drive the party’s messaging.
“Jaime Harrison knows how to do that job. I fear that he may not be allowed to do the job,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., whom Harrison describes as a father figure and mentor.
The White House declined to comment publicly, while Harrison downplayed any tension as a simple matter of navigating a new relationship with Biden’s chief political emissary, Jen O’Malley Dillon. Harrison said they meet two to three times a month, and after getting to know each other better, they’re building a friendship.
“Are there challenges that we all have to navigate in this process because the DNC is not normally involved in the midterms? Yes, there always will be, and there are now,” Harrison said.
From his home base 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of Washington, he acknowledges that he is fighting tremendous odds. Political parties that hold the White House have lost congressional seats in virtually every midterm election in the modern era. And Democrats are clinging to the narrowest majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Polling suggests there is cause for concern.
Gallup found in September that 55% of Americans had a negative view of the Democratic Party, the highest disapproval in five years. At the same time, majorities of Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track with Democrats in charge.
Democratic concerns deepened earlier this month after sweeping losses across Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The party’s Trump-era advantages eroded in the suburbs, while their struggle in rural areas worsened.
At the same time, Democrats believe that a positive message focused on their legislative accomplishments will also lift their standing — if they can effectively sell their achievements to voters.
Earlier in the year, Democrats enacted a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, which sent $1,400 checks to most Americans and provided billions more in support for people and businesses affected by the pandemic. And last week, Democrats, with some Republicans, approved the biggest infrastructure package in generations, a $1 trillion measure that will fund years' worth of major construction projects in every state in the nation. Biden will sign the bill into law on Monday.
Still unsettled is Biden’s larger social spending plan dubbed “Build Back Better,” which features unprecedented government funding to address climate change, childhood poverty and health care.
A week after Democrats approved the infrastructure package, however, the party has yet to unveil a comprehensive plan to promote their accomplishment, which polls suggest is overwhelmingly popular despite pockets of conservative opposition.
In an attempt to get things started, Harrison participated in four cable television interviews this week. At the same time, a handful of DNC leaders have made television or radio appearances. And local elected officials in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina and Michigan held local press conferences to highlight the infrastructure bill.
Harrison said the modest start is intentional.
The party is planning a “slow simmer” strategy to sell the infrastructure package, he said, a shift from the burst of attention surrounding the passage of the Democrat-backed pandemic relief plan earlier in the year.
“What’s the use of really jumping high into this right now, and then dropping off in December, and then by February or March, people are like, ‘What? What happened?’” Harrison said. “The goal is to burn this into the minds of the American people and to have it sustained as we move forward into the 2022 midterms.”
Soon, the DNC will begin rolling out a new wave of TV ads, radio spots and digital ads featuring a combination of Biden and everyday Americans talking about the impact of the infrastructure package on their lives. The party would then focus on highlighting the flood of nationwide groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings expected in the subsequent months.
“This has to be a long-term and sustained thing,” Harrison said. “It just can’t be a flash in the pan.”