DNC hopeful Harrison touts red state experience

DNC hopeful Harrison touts red state experience
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So far, Jaime Harrison’s bid to lead the Democratic National Committee has been overshadowed by two high profile rivals.

Despite the endorsements and media attention garnered by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman believes his on-the-ground experience will put him over the top when the DNC votes in late February. 

“Most of the Beltway media has been focused on the two byproducts of the Beltway, the congressman and the secretary,” Harrison told The Hill.

“But the people who are going to be voting are not the folks who live there,” Harrison said. “I have firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is to rebuild a party, and particularly how to rebuild it in a state dominated by Republicans.”

Harrison, who became the state party’s first black chairman in 2013, is hoping to lead Democrats after a rough 2016 election cycle.

The publication of DNC emails allegedly obtained by Russian hackers deepened divisions between the party’s Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBroadway play 'Hillary and Clinton' closing early due to low ticket sales Broadway play 'Hillary and Clinton' closing early due to low ticket sales Facing challenge from Warren, Sanders touts strength against Trump MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters MORE supporters, and prompted the resignation of former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. 

Clinton’s presidential candidacy collapsed, along with the Democrats’ supposed “blue wall” of safe Midwestern states.  

Making the party’s situation worse, Democrats missed out on the chance to take back the Senate ahead of a perilous 2018 cycle. 

Now, Harrison is vying with Ellison, Perez, New Hampshire State Party Chair Raymond Buckley and Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown for a chance to lead the party’s rebuilding.

Harrison believes his background will help him stand out among the field of candidates and allow him to better open the party’s arms to rural Americans, who boosted Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE’s chances in several key states.

The son of a teenage mother, Harrison spent time on food stamps before eventually graduating from Yale as a first-generation college student.

At 40 years old, Harrison would be the youngest chair in more than a decade. But he has both state experience and federal experience, having served as a top aide to South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, the party’s highest-ranking black lawmaker in Congress.

Clyburn endorsed Harrison in a letter to DNC members last month. 

Harrison took unpaid leave from his job at The Podesta Group, a Washington-based lobbying group co-founded by former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. He plans to resign and focus full time on the DNC if elected.

Harrison blames most of the party’s recent woes — including the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections that saw Democrats lose control of the House and the Senate respectively — on “a lack of investment in party infrastructure” that he believes hurt Clinton’s chances.

Harrison contrasted the DNC’s recent direction with the Republican National Committee, which embraced former Wisconsin state party chairman Reince Priebus as its chair in 2011.

“[Priebus] invested in his state party infrastructure, then started winning on the local level, and they used that strength in the local level to build up so now he has a president-elect and he’s the chief of staff,” Harrison said. 

Harrison points to local- and state-level organization as a key way to help heal the divide among Democrats that have separated into “Bernie” and “Hillary” camps. 

“You have to give people some ownership in the organization itself. A lot of this tug-of-war going on right now in the party is because we’ve had such a top-down approach,” he said.  

“If they want to keep fighting the battles between Bernie and Hillary, we are going to continue to lose, and as a result, good working people are going to get hurt.” 

The idea of retooling the party from the ground up is the bedrock of every DNC chair candidate’ pitch.  

The model is former chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, considered the gold standard by many DNC members, which helped create Democratic majorities in Congress and President Obama’s 2008 victory.

Since then, though, the Democrats have seen their party lose control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Harrison compared the post-2008 DNC strategy to throwing a luxury car into a garage for four-year stints, expecting the engine to purr like a kitten when you take it out for a rare spin. 

With all of the candidates in agreement on the fundamental solution, the race is less a major battle over the party’s soul and more about who should be trusted with enacting those changes.  

Harrison faces long odds in his bid to chair the party. DNC members contacted by The Hill over the past few weeks have been more focused on the dynamic between the two perceived frontrunners than any developments by Harrison or the other candidates. 

Ellison stormed out of the gate as the early leader, wrapping up endorsements across the spectrum from the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerEx-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw MORE (D-N.Y.).

Now, Perez has gained both momentum and major union endorsements after making his bid official last week with a blessing from those close to the White House. 

While Perez and Ellison continue to win outside endorsements, Harrison only has Clyburn’s backing, as well as a tweet of encouragement from former Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman and Ohio Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeFederal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Federal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Lawmakers clash after Dem reads letter on House floor calling Trump supporters 'racist,' 'dumb' MORE.

Harrison's work for The Podesta Group could further complicate the party's push to resonate with voters wary of Washington insiders — and could eventually be used as a bludgeon by critics if his bid gains steam. 

Harrison balked at that assertion. He argued that his Podesta Group salary helped him get past living paycheck-to-paycheck while working on Capitol Hill. 

And he argued that the time with the lobbying firm allowed him to work on "really cool things" like racial reconciliation and dredging the Port of Charleston. 

With all of the candidates espousing a similar message, Harrison’s argument is that his experience makes him unique.  

“I have the on-the-ground knowledge about the troubles, hurdles and barriers state parties face right now,” he said.

And while Ellison and Perez are seen as the early leaders in the race, the final decision comes down to the 447 DNC members who have worked directly with state chairs like Harrison and Buckley, who are themselves DNC members. 

“I don't have the name ID of a congressman or a secretary. And even Ray [Buckley] has been in the DNC much longer than I have,” Harrison said. "But I do have a track record of experience, a lot of passion and a lot of creativity.”