DNC gears up for midterm push
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is poised to play a leading role in next year’s midterm elections as it looks to establish itself as the primary political arm of President Biden’s White House.
The committee’s new chair Jaime Harrison has pledged to reassert the DNC’s political power after a tumultuous and uncertain decade that saw the national party and its state affiliates take a backseat to liberal outside groups. Biden has also taken a keen interest in the DNC and his aides communicate with committee officials regularly.
Some party officials say they see Harrison’s vision as reminiscent of that of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and DNC chairman whose 50-state strategy propelled Democrats to the House majority in 2006 and laid the foundation for former President Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“What Jaime is talking about is doing what was done under Dean’s leadership,” Jane Kleeb, the chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said. “More resources going to building out the party and building out the state operations. It means trusting our state parties more than outside groups.”
Harrison, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chair who mounted a high-profile though ultimately unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last year, has been actively reaching out to state party officials, Kleeb said.
“For years, a lot of power was centralized and a lot of resources were centralized in D.C.,” Kleeb said. “Only a fraction came back to state parties. I think with Jaime, there’s going to be more money and more resources flowing back to the states. He totally gets it.”
One Democratic strategist said that the DNC’s primary role in the 2022 midterms is to sell Biden’s policy agenda and provide cover for Democrats, who are already facing attacks from Republicans over sweeping aspects of their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
“I have lived through too many cycles where Democrats have had to take hard votes and the air cover just wasn’t there,” the strategist said, pointing to the 2010 midterm elections that saw Democrats lose their House majority after passing a raft of major legislation that included the Affordable Care Act and a massive economic recovery bill.
“We have to learn from that lesson,” the strategist continued. “We have to make sure we’re communicating directly with our party and our voters, and that’s the role that the DNC needs to play here.”
The DNC tends to take a less-active role in midterm elections, leaving most of that work to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which deals with House races, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which handles Senate contests.
But with the Democrats’ narrow House and Senate majorities on the line next year — and convention wisdom holding that the party in power often suffers losses in midterm elections — there are signs that approach is changing.
The DNC announced a coordinated campaign on Friday to sell the recently signed coronavirus relief package championed by Biden to battleground state voters. The committee is also distributing a messaging guide to state party officials and national Democrats on how to promote the legislation.
Harrison has also held early talks with state party leaders, caucuses and fellow committee heads. In January, a day before Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) was announced as the new chairman of the DSCC, the two spoke on the phone about how the DNC could more closely coordinate its midterm efforts, according to a DSCC official.
Harrison also has a regular line of communication with Jen O’Malley-Dillon, Biden’s deputy chief of staff who has become the point person on DNC matters at the White House.
“Chair Harrison is a sharp political mind and dynamic leader,” Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser at the DNC, said. “He obviously knows how to raise a lot of money, he knows the state party chairs really well from his time as a state party chair. He’s got the confidence of the Biden operation, so I think he has an opportunity to do exceptionally well, to position the DNC to play a larger role than they’ve played in previous midterm elections.”
Harrison’s ambitions at the DNC come as part of a years-long effort to revamp the committee after a difficult decade that began under the Obama administration.
Despite Obama’s overwhelming popularity among Democrats, his stewardship of the party’s political institutions is still a sore spot for many operatives and officials, who say that the former president left the DNC and state parties gutted after grueling elections in 2012 and 2014.
After Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, the DNC found itself saddled with more than $21 million in debt and its war chest depleted to less than $4.3 million. At the same time, frustrations grew among party officials over Organizing for America, the outside group that carried out much of Obama’s political work during his time in the White House.
“There was a tendency under Obama’s leadership of the DNC to move money to the outside groups,” said one state party chair, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the DNC’s stewardship under Obama. “Organizing for America, Center for American Progress. They were the ones getting the money.”
Current and former officials also recalled a tense relationship between some state Democratic parties and the DNC during Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s (D-Fla.) tenure as chairwoman, which spanned from 2011 until 2016, when she resigned after embarrassing email leaks.
The situation improved under Tom Perez, who took the helm of the DNC after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to former President Trump and built up an operation that helped Democrats win back the White House in 2020.
The committee ended the year with nearly $38.8 million in the bank and less than $3.2 million in debt.
While Democrats are bullish on Harrison’s stewardship of the DNC, one noted that it also has one of its biggest boosters in the Oval Office.
“Biden is a party guy. He’s always been a party guy in a way that Obama never was,” one Democratic consultant said. “He’d been in the Senate for two years, he ran as an outsider, he was skeptical of the party establishment and he had no real interest in building up the DNC. It was never a priority for them.”
“Now, you’ve got a guy who’s been in the system for many, many years,” the consultant added. “He has people with him who have been in the system. They understand the importance of the DNC.”
–Updated at 8:36 a.m.
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