Jaime Harrison has been trying to get people’s attention for years about how the party can win in Southern states.
As a black Democrat from deep-red South Carolina and former state party chairman, he knows the challenges: Moderate voters feel alienated from policies geared more toward northern progressives. African-Americans are often ignored until the Sunday before an election.
Harrison finally has a soapbox. He didn’t win his bid earlier this year to lead the Democratic National Committee, but he did become an associate chairman with a mandate to develop the party’s strategy for winning elections across the South and in rural districts.
Now Harrison just needs to make sure the right people are not only listening, but willing to put his ideas into action.
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Following Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss to President Donald Trump in 2016, Democrats got a jolt and realized they needed to rebuild its long-neglected state parties.
Harrison, though, faces all sorts of daunting challenges — such as his party’s fiscal constraints, stubborn establishment insiders and historic resistance to change.
Prospects appear promising so far. With Harrison’s help, the DNC is implementing an “Every Zipcode Counts” initiative. Every month, the DNC will hand out $10,000 to each state Democratic party, up from $7,500 previously. As a condition of receiving that allowance, each party will submit to a “SWAT analysis” of its internal operations, and the DNC’s goal is to complete all by the year’s end.
The DNC is also establishing a $10 million grant program, with state parties able to apply for additional money to bolster specific initiatives.
And a program Harrison started in South Carolina is going national: “Democrats Care” will empower state parties to do community service projects as a way to connect with voters and build local Democratic brands.
Harrison is traveling over the next month to Tennessee, Arkansas, Montana and Utah. At DNC Chairman Tom Perez’s request, he’ll also spend time in Alabama helping Democrats prepare for the Senate special election in December.
“Jaime is indispensable,” Perez told McClatchy. “He is constantly reminding us that we can win races and areas across the country … ‘Don’t forget about us,’ is his frequent mantra.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether Perez and other top Washington Democrats are prepared to do everything Harrison views as necessary to win between now and November 2018. Some Democrats are dubious.
“I think people are starting to pay attention, but I don’t know if they understand what needs to happen,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who speaks frequently with Harrison. “I have confidence in Jaime’s ability to craft a plan, but I’m not sure about the party’s commitment to give him the money to fund state parties and local candidates and give them the ability to win.”
In the not-so-distant future, DNC leaders will have to decide how much money to spend on Harrison’s priorities, such as his rural states initiative, which will necessitate lots of travel to different communities for town halls and listening sessions.
His “Democrats Cares” program will require state party outreach and the creation of “toolkits” to help people get started. More staff will be needed to help prepare parties to apply for grants, and then more manpower will be necessary to comb through all the applications.
Harrison also must unravel years of learned behavior, and desire for instant results, within Democratic establishment ranks.
Former Sen. Mark Begich, a moderate Alaska Democrat who is working with Harrison on rural outreach, said it was important for the DNC to underscore that rebuilding the party won’t happen overnight — a message he suggested be communicated to major donors who wield influence with their checkbooks.
“The DNC has a lot of money coming in from very, very liberal sources, California and New York, who have a hard time understanding Montana, Alaska, Oklahoma,” Begich said.
It’s also unclear whether the Democrats’ House and Senate campaign committees are truly committed to implementing red state and rural district strategies. That is something over which Harrison and the DNC have little control, but their success could depend on it. So far this year, the DCCC has yet to win a special election.
One advantage Harrison has is that the concept of making long-term investments in state parties is not really new.
More than a decade ago, then-DNC Chairman Howard Dean introduced a “50-state strategy” that called for committing resources to races as low down as school board and as high up as Senate.
He called for recognition that Democratic identities differ around the country, and that state parties, not Washington strategists, were best positioned to make sure voters understood how candidates would embody certain values.
Dean was derided by many national Democrats who thought expanding the map was a waste of money and time, but the former Vermont governor had backing from DNC members outside of Washington, which allowed him to proceed.
Democrats surged in 2006, winning control of both chambers of Congress. But the party lost the House four years later, the Senate in 2014 and the White House last year.
After Dean’s departure from the DNC in early 2009, some blamed President Barack Obama for fostering a false sense of political security that lingered into the 2016 election.
Critics maintained Organizing for America, an organization that formed to advance Obama’s agenda, took away money, resources and talent from the DNC. Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and head of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, said new court rulings on campaign finance laws changed the landscape for everyone.
People need to remember and appreciate the strengths of Dean’s road map, said Harrison. Too many Democrats — from members of Congress to political consultants, “even staff at the various campaign committees who weren’t there or didn’t learn the right lessons” — need “a refresher, to be re-educated.”
Republicans are replicating Democrats’ 2006 strategy with success, Harrison said. State outreach matters.
“I tell people, if you don’t trust what I have to say, look at the people who have been winning: Republicans,” Harrison said. “What’s important (is) what’s happening at the local level. It doesn’t matter what happens in Washington, D.C.”
Will members of his party come around? Harrison thought they would, though for many, he said, “The jury is still out.”