Frustrations mount inside DNC over midterm strategy

The Democratic National Committee (DNC), White House and aligned interest groups are growing discontent about how to create a national network to support President Biden’s agenda and enhance his image, leaving some in the party puzzled about the big-picture plan for 2022.

That’s according to multiple sources with knowledge of the party committee, who are befuddled and upset that the strategic vision seems to be slipping away amid reports of personality disputes, administration overreach, communication mishaps and wasted resources.

“While the White House still hasn’t figured out how to build their outside infrastructure, they’re quickly trying to shift blame for the position to people outside the White House,” said one plugged-in DNC source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss internal committee operations.

“It’s really disappointing because we’re 10 months before the election,” the source said. “We’ve got time.”

Over the past several weeks, a string of damaging stories emerged that placed central figures in the DNC — including Chairman Jaime Harrison — and White House officials at loggerheads, causing Harrison to go on the defensive about his role steering the committee Biden entrusted him to lead through his Democratic-controlled first term.

The Hill recently reported that some Democrats close to the party committee haven’t been able to agree on one uniform approach to messaging around the more disappointing points in Biden’s administration, including the fact that his two biggest legislative priorities were effectively nixed by Congress. 

Then, a report by NBC News cited “more than two dozen sources” who expressed a broader, more tiresome dynamic forming inside the committee, at one juncture even reportedly leading to Harrison considering leaving the post. 

Harrison minimized those characterizations from “unnamed” figures in an extensive Twitter thread and said in a statement that the DNC and the White House “are a cohesive team.” 

“The DNC, along with our partners in the White House, are a cohesive team that is firing on all cylinders in order to put Democrats in the best possible position to win,” Harrison said in a statement to The Hill. “Anything suggesting otherwise is flatly untrue. Each and every day, I am proud to be a part of this team and the critical work we are doing.”

His Twitter thread won him the support of party figures and operatives who rushed to his side. They see blame being unfairly heaped on the South Carolina native, causing some to speculate if the bad press is coming from disgruntled aides within the administration.

“The White House needs to let Jaime be Jaime,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a longtime Democratic strategist and former DNC adviser. “He understands exactly what the DNC needs to do to be successful from a standpoint of supporting President Biden’s agenda, organizing, fundraising and supporting the 57 state parties.”

“Dictating his day to day is a disservice to the work he has agreed to do and what we need to do to win this year,” Parkhomenko said.

According to those party figures and operatives, even more crippling than some unflattering news coverage is the fact that a few key Biden allies like Jen O’Malley Dillion, the president’s deputy chief of staff, are calling most of the shots from the West Wing, while Executive Director Sam Cornale and Mary Beth Cahill, a senior DNC adviser, are in charge at the committee end.

That pipeline has created confusion about who’s strategically in charge of defending the Democratic majorities in November, some say.

A source familiar with the matter disputed any apparent tensions, saying Harrison and O’Malley Dillion have “a solid working relationship and are in frequent close contact.”

Reached for comment, a Biden adviser told The Hill: “President Biden and Democrats are united — we’re focused on lowering costs for the American people while talking to the American people about our accomplishments — we created more jobs than in any one year in the history of the country and passed a historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

“Meanwhile,” the adviser added, “Congressional Republicans are standing in the way and don’t have a plan to beat back the pandemic or to grow jobs.”

Other Democrats who are annoyed with the way things are unfolding during the early Biden years say that while things have been unpleasant, it’s not entirely uncommon for some bumps in the road to occur while the party is in power.  

Early into the Obama years, there was an open debate between the DNC and the White House about how to function effectively with a blue wave in their favor after years of Republican control, with some taking issue internally at the time with how the newly sworn-in president’s political lieutenants handled the committee.

“This is what happens when the Democrats control the White House,” said a DNC delegate, who also asked to speak without attribution. “It’s not right. I don’t agree with it at all.”

Multiple sources privately acknowledged that, for all the public cheerleading of winning up and down the ticket, being in charge of the White House and Congress at times creates more issues for the DNC than they otherwise would have to deal with. When Democrats are not in control, they essentially serve as attack dogs against the Republican Party, a position that allows them to dish out opposition research and negative ads to flood into voters’ inboxes.

Instead, they are now tasked with boosting an administration that has natural highs and lows. And Biden has had many. In just over a year in office, his approval rating has sunk in several battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, a metric top DNC officers are keeping a close eye on as Election Day approaches.

“The White House focuses the DNC’s efforts on winning and then keeping the White House. The DNC should have far broader and deeper goals than that,” the delegate said.

During the Trump era, then-DNC Chairman Tom Perez, Obama’s former Labor secretary and choice to lead the committee, was thought to have been given substantial room to craft the opposition body in a way that would dig at all of the former president’s biggest issues in office.

The party focused heavily on exposing alleged corruption, spotlighting controversial domestic policies and promoting what they viewed as a rapid chipping-away at democratic norms by former President Trump and his associates.

In the Biden era, there’s no GOP leader in charge to cast as obstructionist to the Democratic agenda, creating a fundamental contrast to the recent Trump years.

“Jaime thought his chairmanship would be like Tom’s,” said the DNC delegate. “If Jaime had the freedom that Tom did, I know he would be a much more positively impactful chair than Tom was. But that’s not the reality now.”

Still, for the apparent high dissatisfaction, the committee has touted some gains they believe are impressive markers of success, especially as COVID-19 has continued to upend how organizers and workers function on a daily basis.

They reported the highest fundraising total during a nonpresidential cycle — a key metric for any party apparatus — and announced raking in $150 million, only narrowly lagging behind their GOP counterpart. State parties reported raising $23 million collectively in 2021.

In addition, the DNC announced on Thursday that Biden and the committee will jointly make the “largest ever” transfer of cash for the midterms to use down ballot, a whopping $7.5 million heading respectively to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Jaime Harrison has been a critical partner in this effort, helping share our message with the American people, while working to put Democrats in the best position to win in 2022 and 2024,” the Biden adviser said.

“We have a lot of important work left to do, which is why we want Jaime out there more, not less — more television, more campaign rallies, more fundraising. He’s an asset, and we will need him out there for the work we have ahead.”

Updated at 8:17 a.m.

Tags 2022 midterms Democratic National Committee DNC Donald Trump Jaime Harrison Joe Biden midterms Tom Perez
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