A Red-State Democrat Plots a Path Back to Power

A Red-State Democrat Plots a Path Back to Power

Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, speaks at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the final night of the Democratic National Convention, July 28, 2016.

SourceTom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Why you should care

Because a Democratic revival could come from unlikely places.

Welcome to The Wilderness, an OZY original series charting how Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more.

The best job Jaime Harrison ever had revolved around one magic number: 218. As floor director for the House majority whip, he had the scoop on what he calls the “secret sauce” of Washington — when there were enough votes to pass a bill. And Democrats almost never lost a vote in 2007 and 2008, in part because Harrison, among others, knew how to corral urban liberals, rural Blue Dogs and everyone in between.

The numbers today are daunting for Democrats, who control just 194 congressional seats and an all-time low of 15 governorships. Harrison’s new favorite figure is 50 because, he says, Democrats must spend money and compete in every state. Now a high-ranking official with the Democratic National Committee — who contended to be national chairman — Harrison says a comeback requires an aspirational message that can appeal both to downtrodden white Donald Trump voters and Black men whose turnout rate dropped because they weren’t inspired by Hillary Clinton. “But before you get to the message, you have to have the vehicle by which the message is delivered,” Harrison says. “And that is state parties.”

Harrison expresses optimism for Democrats in South Carolina, Alabama and other crimson states.

The 41-year-old son of Orangeburg, South Carolina, is a powerful messenger. His mother dropped out of 10th grade to give birth to him; his father was not much of a presence. They relied on welfare and food stamps at times, with a side of political constituent service. After his mother wrote her U.S. senators, Strom Thurmond helped get her a factory job. (Yes, the same Strom Thurmond who once ran for president on a segregationist platform.)

A star student whose love of reading was sparked by comic books, Harrison graduated from Yale and then Georgetown law. He rose quickly on Capitol Hill with his hometown congressman, Democrat Jim Clyburn, who named Harrison the House’s first ever Black floor director when Clyburn claimed the No. 3–ranking post. Harrison relishes wins such as a defense spending bill calling for a withdrawal from Iraq, but one major loss still sticks in his craw: when the first bank bailout vote fell apart because Republicans did not deliver enough votes from their side — despite an agreement to share the pain. (A rebooted Troubled Asset Relief Program would pass a couple of days later, after a stock market plunge spooked everyone.)

It was one of Harrison’s final big moments on the floor, as he left Capitol Hill in 2009 for a lucrative lobbying job with Podesta Group. It was also an early rumble of the populist earthquakes that have been shaking American politics; the Tea Party movement was born in response to bailouts. Harrison made enough money lobbying to pay off his student loans and help out his family, but the firm’s coal and tobacco clients turned into a political liability when he ran for DNC national chairman. Harrison says he has no regrets about giving certain companies a voice in the lawmaking process, though he still smarts at the negative press coverage.

He returned to South Carolina, he says, because he was disappointed in what Republican rule had done to the state, and he became the state Democratic Party’s first ever Black chairman in 2013. Pledging to build up an atrophied grassroots network, he launched a fellowship for young political talent and an “issues conference” to train Democrats on policy around the state. He became pals with his Republican counterpart, Matt Moore, and the two joined forces to help remove the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol in 2015.

Jaime harrison 99614040

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (right) and aide Jaime Harrison, director of floor operations and counsel, call Democratic members to determine where they stand before a vote on the economic bailout plan, October 2, 2008.

Source Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

After the 2016 debacle for the party, Harrison ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee as a next-generation voice from deep in Trump country. But he never elbowed his way into a two-man race between Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison. “[Harrison] was my first choice for DNC chair, [but] I never endorsed him because he didn’t have the horses,” says former DNC chairman Howard Dean, who lauds Harrison’s political acumen. Harrison also knew he didn’t have the votes, so he dropped out and endorsed Perez, who won and rewarded Harrison with a job as associate chair and counselor. They are now implementing a return to Dean’s 50-state strategy of the mid-2000s, which led to big Democratic gains before it was abandoned in the Obama years.

Harrison considered running for governor in 2018 but decided campaigning full-time without pay would strain the family finances too much. Clyburn signals Harrison could be his successor, telling OZY: “I see him as a potential congressman. I’m 77 years old. My days are numbered.”

From a small state party office suite in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, Harrison expresses optimism for Democrats in South Carolina, Alabama and other crimson states. Starting in October, the DNC will send $10,000 per month to every state party and launch an additional $10 million innovation fund for states.

Some national Democrats have argued for more selective spending, and South Carolina hardly seems primed for a blue comeback. Brad Warthen, a PR consultant and former editorial page editor for Columbia’s The State, quips that after a string of bearded professor types, he’ll know Democrats are serious about winning when their candidates start shaving. “We will have to have a revolution — something akin to the constitutional convention in 1787 — to start seeing more Democrats elected to the [U.S.] House in South Carolina,” Warthen says.

Despite his facial hair, South Carolina Democrat Archie Parnell nearly pulled off a shocking special congressional election win in June with comparatively little national money. Harrison says more early investment in ground staff could have tipped the low-turnout race. With most of the U.S. political map drenched in red, there will be plenty more opportunities to test his theory.

Reporter Nick Fouriezos contributed to this story.

OZYPolitics & Power

Welcome to a new era in politics around the world, from innovators at the local level to federal disrupters like the Trump administration in America's capital.