Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of President-elect Joe Biden’s most influential allies, is pushing hard for Jaime Harrison to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The House majority whip has spent the last few weeks publicly and privately advocating for Harrison, and has even spoken to Biden about the DNC chair position, an aide to the congressman told POLITICO.
With Clyburn’s backing and support from several state party chairs, Harrison — a former South Carolina party chairman himself — is inching closer toward becoming the next leader of the national party.
“I’m sure it’s his for the asking,” said James Zogby, a DNC member who previously served on the party’s Unity Reform Commission. “He’s been a state chair. He knows what it’s like. He knows the other state chairs. They are the heart and soul of the party.”
Biden has not made public whom he prefers to be the next DNC chairman. But many party members see Harrison, who’s best known for his challenge this year against liberal boogeyman Sen. Lindsey Graham, as a natural fit. While he lost the race by 10 percentage points, he raised a stunning $131 million during the campaign — making him the best-funded Senate candidate ever.
Harrison, who unsuccessfully campaigned to lead the party in 2017 before throwing his support to current chair Tom Perez, is also the associate chair of the DNC.
Even many progressives, who have their ideological differences with Harrison, are satisfied with the prospect of him at the helm.
Andrew Feldman, a Democratic consultant with close ties to labor unions, said that Harrison is so well-liked across the party that it’s not “much of a race.”
Not when he has the backing of Clyburn, the congressman who helped resurrect Biden’s campaign when it was on life support after the former vice president placed fourth and fifth in the primary’s first two early states. Clyburn endorsed Biden right before the South Carolina primary, which Biden credited as having “brought me back.”
“Jaime’s unique life experiences will serve him well as chair,” said Clyburn. “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.”
Another reason Harrison has consolidated support among DNC members is because of his experience as a state party chair. Leaders of Democratic state committees are still frustrated by what they say was a lack of proper funding from the DNC under former President Barack Obama. Though their financial support has been boosted since then, many state party chairs still want one of their own to lead the party and, they hope, adequately fund their organizations. It’s been two decades since a DNC chairman had prior experience heading a state party.
“There’s no question that the best party chair for us at the national level will have been a state party chair, or at least in party leadership, so they know all of the arrows that come to us on a daily basis — the lack of resources,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “Jaime brings that experience. He also brings the experience of being in a red state. Look, the reality is just look at the Senate makeup. I think one of the biggest challenges we have right now is that we are mostly a coastal party.”
Last month, a group of about 70 state party chairs and vice chairs sent a letter to Biden, which was obtained by POLITICO, asking him to “consider the following attributes that we feel will contribute mightily to the success of the DNC Chair.”
The traits described someone who “Has served in State Party Leadership,” “Has experience in raising money for candidates, committees, and other allied organizations,” and “Has a strong media presence and ability to take on Republicans.”
As one state party chief put it, “We didn’t name Jaime in the letter, but all of the qualifications matched Jaime’s resume and experience.”
Ray Buckley, the longtime chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, was one of the people to sign onto the letter. He said, “I’ll be supporting whoever President Biden suggests,” but added that Harrison “would make a fantastic DNC chair … if you look over the decades, the people that are the most effective are people that have served as state party chair.”
Besides Harrison, a long-shot, anti-establishment candidate who ran previously, Sam Ronan, has also thrown his hat in the ring for DNC leader. Democrats did not name any other current contenders.
Harrison is not viewed by progressives as one of their own. In the past, he has faced criticism for previously working as a lobbyist for fossil fuel interests. But progressive DNC members said they appreciate his experience as a state party leader, as well as his support of party reforms in the wake of the 2016 election.
A Biden spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Joshua Karp, a spokesman for Harrison, referred POLITICO to remarks Harrison made recently on CNN about the post. “Whatever they believe that I can do and be helpful on, in terms of building back better, I’m on. I’m all in. So, if it’s the DNC, call my number and I will be there,” he said.
Still, Harrison’s ascension to party chair is not a completely done deal. Former Pennsylvania Gov. and DNC chair Ed Rendell, who is a friend of Biden’s, was ambivalent when asked about Harrison.
“He’s very charismatic, and the first time I heard him speak I was blown away. But we don’t need that because we have the president. The president becomes the face of the party,” he said. “Can Jaime raise money? Well, he certainly raised money for his own race. But was that because he was running against Lindsey Graham? And thirdly, how good of an administrator is Jaime? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know him well enough to know the answer.”
Donna Brazile, another former DNC chair, said she didn’t want to speculate on potential candidates for party chair until speaking to Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s 2020 campaign manager. “I know Jaime, I know a lot of other people who are interested in a position,” she said.
After Biden taps a chair, the person will be voted on by the full DNC, said a party official, who declined to go on record. There is typically a meeting around the inauguration, though one has not yet been scheduled, the person said.
The DNC rank-and-file has already begun efforts to influence the next party leader’s agenda. Members of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council penned a letter in November to Perez, asking him to pass it along to the future DNC chair, urging the party to hire a “dedicated” ethnic outreach aide. Another group of DNC members wrote to Biden calling for him and the next party chief to support numerous reforms, including reducing the power of at-large members and allowing all members to vote on the number and location of presidential primary debates.
If he becomes chair, Harrison will also face the difficult task of navigating the DNC through the next midterm elections, which are almost always a challenging election cycle for an incumbent president’s party. And he will need to keep the party’s warring factions from going at each other’s throats — something that will be extraordinarily hard without President Donald Trump in office to keep the Democrats united.
“This party is in desperate need of a major tune-up. It’s fine that Biden and Harris got over the finish line. But look what’s behind us. Look at the number of seats we lost in the House. Look at the number of the seats that never materialized in the Senate,” said Brazile. “We have to make sure that the next party leader will be able to take us through the storm called the midterms.”