Harrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment

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Insiders view South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison as the likeliest next chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), but President-elect Joe Biden has been mum about who he wants in the role.

Several other Democrats have privately expressed interest or could be in the mix, including Ken Martin, the chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party; former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; former Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Al Franken (Minn.); and outgoing Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.).

Representatives for former Georgia state House Rep. Stacey Abrams and former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), both of whom were mentioned by Democrats as potential candidates, told The Hill they are not interested in the job. Abrams may make another run for governor of Georgia in 2022.

Whoever succeeds current DNC Chairman Tom Perez will be dropped into a pressure cooker after the 2020 elections brought disappointing results for Democrats in House, Senate and statehouse races. Democrats in 2022 will seek to protect their slim majority in the House during Biden’s first midterm elections, when the president’s party traditionally loses seats.

“In the arc of history, defeating President Trump was the most important thing that happened in 2020, but the fact that we lost some key House and Senate races and did not pick up statehouses is a red flag telling us that there’s still a ton of work to do,” said David Pepper, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Ohio. “The job will be immediate for the next person who comes in. There were a lot of troubling down-ticket losses, and a bad cycle in 2022 could make things very difficult for us.”

Harrison has a clear leg up on the competition after he was endorsed by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has become a kingmaker in Biden World since he was instrumental in rallying Black voters behind Biden’s presidential candidacy at a moment in the Democratic primary when the president-elect appeared to be on the ropes. 

Clyburn has spoken directly to Biden and his top aides about appointing Harrison to be the next DNC chair. Harrison has said he’d consider it, if asked. 

Harrison, the former chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, is Black and comes from the South, where Democratic gains propelled Biden to the White House.

He’s a proven fundraiser, having drawn record sums of cash in his bid to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in 2020.

Since losing that race, Harrison started a super PAC aimed at reaching rural voters, who represent one of the most glaring deficiencies in the Democratic coalition.

He is likeable and good on television. And he knows the DNC, having been tapped by Perez to act as associate chairman in 2017.

While Harrison is not from the party’s progressive wing, the left does not object to having him lead the national party.

“Jaime’s unique life experiences will serve him well as chair,” Clyburn said in a statement to The Hill. “He grew up in rural Orangeburg, South Carolina, and is well prepared educationally and politically to lead the DNC. His experiences as a state Democratic Party chair and associate chair of the DNC and his recent candidacy have provided him with a good understanding of local parties and organizations, and a heavy dose of empathy for candidates and their supporters.”

Still, Biden has not made his preference known for who he wants to lead the DNC. There are a lot of moving parts as the president-elect assembles his Cabinet and administration.

Martin, the Democratic leader in Minnesota, is a vice chair at the DNC and hails from a Midwest state with a large rural population.

Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, has been building a national fundraising network since leaving office.

Democrats want to keep Jones, the Alabama senator, active in party politics after he lost his Senate reelection bid, but he is reportedly also under consideration for attorney general.

Franken could be ready for a comeback, as some Democrats express regret over how he was pushed out following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Whoever is tapped for the position, some DNC members want to see changes to the national party. They hope to make their case to Biden before he names a new leader.

Dozens of DNC members sent a letter to Biden last month calling for the next chair to reduce the influence of at-large members, to increase budgetary and decisionmaking transparency and to ensure DNC members ratify the primary debates schedule.

Crucially, DNC members say the next chair must have a connection to local grass-roots Democrats and continue Perez’s efforts to bolster state parties at a time when Republicans are dominating statehouse races.

“The most important job of the next DNC Chair is to serve as a liaison for state parties to the White House,” said Michael Kapp, a DNC member from California. “We want a DNC Chair that will help advance the Biden-Harris agenda by electing Democrats up and down the ballot. But it’s also the responsibility of the DNC to look beyond the next two or four or eight years and build a Democratic Party for the future. This means expanded investments in purple, red and rural areas of the country — crucial investments where we might not see immediate benefits.”

While DNC members acknowledge that it is customary for the president-elect to decide who will run the national party, they hope Biden responds to their letter and solicits input from local organizers.

“Having input from the representatives of the grass roots base — most of us DNC members are elected – would do a lot to show faith in the base and a connection to the grass roots,” said Jeri Shepherd, a DNC member from Colorado.

Perez had a huge task in rebuilding an organization that effectively crumbled under President Obama and former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. He has made strides in repairing some trust with the left, but there is still a sense in some quarters that Democratic leaders in Washington are too disconnected from the activist base.

“It’s about making sure DNC members are heard going forward,” said David Atkins, a newly elected DNC member from California. “Traditionally, the DNC has been a very top-down organization where the members have very little influence over the decisionmaking. There’s a reason many DNC members got to where they are, and I think it’s better when you seek out their input.”

Tags Al Franken Claire McCaskill Deval Patrick Donald Trump doug jones Heidi Heitkamp jaime harrison south carolina dnc chair tom perez 2020 elections james clyburn joe biden Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Tom Perez

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