WASHINGTON — New Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison is pledging to play a larger role in next year’s midterm elections than the group has in more than a decade, hoping a more robust effort from the once-beleaguered party apparatus can help prevent the type of steep electoral losses traditionally suffered by a sitting president.
In recent years, Democratic strategists say an underfunded and often neglected DNC was an afterthought in midterm races. But the new DNC chair is promising that those days are now behind them, pointing to an influx of cash and the full-throated backing of a new Democratic president — whose political operation appears much more intent on using the committee than the party’s last president.
“I do believe that we can have the stars align and make new history in 2022,” Harrison said in an interview with McClatchy.
Harrison’s pledge amounts to the next step in a yearslong rehabilitation project for the DNC, which Democratic officials say was undervalued by former President Barack Obama during his White House tenure and had nearly ceased to be a viable political operation by the 2016 election.
Now, with President Joe Biden, the DNC is poised to act as the White House’s political arm, giving the committee’s efforts even more prominence. Biden officials and DNC officials say they talk weekly to coordinate their efforts.
Harrison said the DNC would work closely with the party’s congressional political committees to hold on to Democratic control over the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in the midterm election cycle.
The DNC’s presence in midterm elections could ease the operational burden traditionally shouldered by these committees, which would be a significant development for a party already fighting next year to hold its slim majorities in Congress. Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast a tiebreaking vote. The party currently has a fragile 10-seat majority in the House.
Nearly three dozen states will also elect governors in 2022, and two states, New Jersey and Virginia, have gubernatorial elections this year.
Former acting DNC chair and current at-large member Donna Brazile said that a core function of the party committee is to amplify the president’s message when a Democrat has the White House while organizing fervently in all of the states, even ones not considered presidential battlegrounds.
“I would hope that states that may not be so-called ‘crucial’ to President Biden’s reelection are given opportunities to flourish,” Brazile said.
Harrison has made teaming up with the party’s congressional and gubernatorial committees to organize a robust on-the-ground operation in targeted races a top priority in his first month on the job.
“I’ve had conversations with Leader Schumer about making sure that the organization is on the ground as it relates to some of the target Senate races,” Harrison said, referring to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
“That’s just really important. So I think you’re going to see a great collaboration between these committees. We’re going to be much smarter about how to utilize our resources and work together,” he said.
Harrison said he’s spoken with the chairs of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is Senate Democrats’ political arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is House Democrats’ political arm, and the Democratic Governors Association.
Aides to these committees and DNC officials emphasize that the national committee has not yet specifically determined what role it will have or what financial resources it could bring to bear on an election that is still 20 months away.
Officials with the congressional political committees also caution that although they welcome greater involvement from the DNC and are optimistic it will come, they’ll retain some lingering skepticism about the group’s reliability until they see it make tangible contributions to campaigns.
“The DNC should be focused like a laser on helping the DCCC and the DSCC and the DGA with candidate recruitment and resources to rebuild the infrastructure of the party at the grassroots level,” Brazile said.
Former DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who took over in 2017, helped to build up the committee’s political operations during former President Donald Trump’s time in office, culminating in an operation during the 2020 election that Biden officials praised as surprisingly helpful.
White House officials say they plan to build on that success now that Biden occupies the White House.
“The DNC will play a very important role in telling the story of the Biden Administration and in working with us at all levels to further build and strengthen the Democratic Party in states all across the country,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told McClatchy in a statement.
“We view this as a critical partnership and look forward to working together to advance our agenda to build back better from the crises we face as a nation,” she said.
Biden’s deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon and Harrison speak regularly, DNC and White House officials said.
Harrison said he has “a great partnership with the White House” which he turns to for “political guidance” and works with to promote Biden’s agenda.
“He’s the leader of our party. And we’re gonna do all that we can to make sure that we take the messages from the White House and make sure that they get to the people,” he said.
The DNC has seen its fair share of tumult over the past decade, from Obama’s decision to form a rival group to which he outsourced much of his political operation to the DNC’s server being hacked by the Russians in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Embarrassing emails that were made public forced former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to step down on the eve of the party’s national convention that year. Brazile took over in the interim until Perez was chosen in early 2017.
Under Perez the DNC stabilized and financially improved. The DNC reported it had nearly $45 million in cash on hand to end January, four times more than the roughly $10.5 million it reported at the end of January 2017.
Democratic officials say the committee could soon receive an additional $40 million in leftover funding from joint accounts with the Biden campaign, although the use of some of that money could be restricted by Federal Election Commission rules.
The lack of financial assistance from past versions of the DNC has been a source of exasperation, say Democrats, who point out Republicans have long been able to count on the backing of the Republican National Committee.
“It was always frustrating that the DNC in midterm years would raise money off the idea that they were helping these candidates in the midterms, and then that money would not go to benefit those campaigns,” said Matt Canter, who served as the DSCC’s deputy executive director in 2014. “They would send out email solicitations to say, ‘Help us keep the Senate majority,’ and then not spend money keeping the Senate majority.”
Canter said that although committees like the DSCC will still invest heavily in their own operations, a more aggressive DNC could provide essential support for a party that has been at a financial and operational disadvantage compared to the GOP.
“For a decade, it was three on two, right?” Canter said. “Because the RNC has been doing this forever, as far as I know.”
The different political committees in both parties usually work together on some elements of a campaign, coordinating efforts to conduct on-the-ground voter outreach efforts and sometimes sharing the costs of printed materials that feature the party’s slate of candidates. The DNC is also responsible for bolstering individual state parties, which work directly with the party’s candidates up and down the ballot.
Democratic officials also say they are hopeful that an overhaul of the party’s data operation will help aid all of its candidates.
Harrison emphasized that he plans to bolster organizing in all states, even ones that Democrats lost in the last election, such as Florida. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio faces reelection there next year in a race some party strategists are quietly downplaying, citing the Republican Party’s recent dominance in federal and statewide elections in that state.
“So my philosophy in life is you fall off the bike, you get back up, you brush yourself off, and you get your butt back on the bike and start riding again,” Harrison said. “I mean that that is what we’re gonna do in this party. Just because we hit a bump in the road, it doesn’t mean that we just stop and give up. We keep building and before we know it, we will cross that finish line.”