What Jaime Harrison Wants Democrats to Do Now

The former Senate candidate from South Carolina wants to be DNC chair, and he won’t support defunding the police.

Jaime Harrison
Getty / The Atlantic

Two weeks ago, when I wrote that Jaime Harrison was poised to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, there were two main responses: excitement from his supporters and eye-rolling “Looks like he’s failing upward” tweets from his detractors. Harrison became a nationally known Democrat over the course of his year-long run against Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He raised the most money of any Senate candidate in history, but, come November 3, he lost his race by more than 10 points—the biggest margin of defeat for any of the challengers Democrats had real hopes for this year.

Now, in addition to hoping that President-elect Joe Biden asks him to be DNC chair, Harrison has formed what he’s calling the Dirt Road PAC, inspired by a man he met early on in his campaign whom he later immortalized in a viral ad. In the spot, Harrison tells voters that the man told him he wasn’t engaged in politics, because politics had never done as much as gotten him a paved road to his house. The PAC is also an opportunity to prove that he can do more beyond his own campaign, especially with Senate runoffs in neighboring Georgia coming up in January. Speaking by phone from his home in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday, Harrison explained why he thinks the country needs another PAC, what he makes of Graham’s attempts to question other states’ vote counts, and whether he’s ready to get the big call from Biden. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Edward-Isaac Dovere: You spent $110 million and didn’t come close to defeating Lindsey Graham. How is it that you’re the person now to tell people how they should spend their money?

Jaime Harrison: I’m not telling anybody how to spend their money, but I am saying that there is a path forward I believe that we can take. Look, Donald Trump in 2016 got 1.15 million votes here in South Carolina. I ended up getting 1.1 million votes. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by almost 14 points here in South Carolina. We did everything that we possibly could to get to that number, because that was the line. What happened is Donald Trump had coattails that I don’t think anybody ever anticipated that he would have, and that he would draw out some folks who were sporadic voters who voted a straight Republican ticket. Our race got caught up in it. We know how close this race was, and Lindsey Graham knows how close this race was, because he dragged the sitting vice president of the United States, who was running for his own political life, to campaign for him. Mitch McConnell put $30 million into South Carolina in the last three weeks of this campaign. They only did that because they knew that the race was close.

Dovere: Don’t this year’s election results show that there are bigger forces at play in politics than can be overcome by tactics? Every year, Democrats have complained that they could never overcome Republicans’ money advantage, but this year they did, and many Democrats still lost.

Harrison: We got outspent in 2018, but we didn’t get beat. In my race, there are a hell of a lot of black folks who came out to vote this time around because they were inspired by our race, because we were out in the community. And part of our challenge is, we get a candidate who can inspire the African American vote and turn that out, but you also got to make inroads in rural white South Carolina as well, and have those folks understand that you’re fighting for them also. And we started that conversation. Our rural-hope agenda was focused on appeal to both rural black folks and white voters. But it seems as though that’s going to take a lot longer and a much more engaged conversation in order to take place. And that’s what this PAC is all about. It is saying that you cannot think that you are just going to turn South Carolina or a place like South Carolina in one cycle. This is going to take a long-term investment, building relationships with folks in those communities in order to get it done. South Carolina didn’t turn red overnight.

Dovere: With all the challenges the party faces right now, and all the places in the country Democrats are trying to win, how do you get people to care about South Carolina, which is nowhere near being blue?

Harrison: If we are serious about being a majority party, if we are serious about being a party in all 50 states, that means you have to make investments in those areas. Because if we are not serious, the strategy to ever get the Senate control back won’t happen—because you can’t just cede a state to the other side and allow their foundation and their base to be higher each election cycle. That means that you have to begin investing long-term in some of these states where the prospects are not bright right now. If you don’t compete, you know you aren’t going to win. We see the investment that we’ve seen in places like Georgia and Arizona. Virginia is a perfect example.

Dovere: Isn’t the lesson for Republicans that their policies and approach to politics worked and there is support for them, even though you and other Democrats insisted that they were so wrong for the last few years?

Harrison: It may work for Donald Trump.

Dovere: But they won and Trump lost.

Harrison: Donald Trump won in North Carolina and South Carolina. They are just riding the coattails of Trump. The question is, will it work without Trump? And my hypothesis is it won’t. The people here still don’t like Lindsey Graham. They held their nose because they want to support Donald Trump, the folks who voted for him.

Dovere: But he won by a lot. He beat you by a lot.

Harrison: We had 900,000 people who voted straight-ticket Republican. Is that voting for Lindsey Graham, or is it just voting for the Republican ticket? This race would have been totally different if it was two years from now or two years prior, because it would have been Lindsey Graham running on Lindsey Graham’s record in and of itself.

Dovere: What do you make of the calls that Graham has been making to Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada to question the votes that came in for Biden?

Harrison: My grandma used to say, if you buy some rotten apples, don’t be surprised if you find worms. That’s totally the case with Lindsey Graham. Folks here in South Carolina knew what they were buying, and they weren’t fresh, good apples. And instead of this guy focusing on COVID—because it’s spiking here in South Carolina too —instead of focusing on the restaurants that are closing and aren’t opening, the health-care deficiencies, what is Lindsey Graham doing right now? He’s calling up the secretary of state in Georgia.

Dovere: Do you think he broke the law?

Harrison: That’s what investigations have to do, is find out. We wouldn’t be asking these questions if we thought it was appropriate. So at the very least, it’s not appropriate and he should know better. It’s not like he’s some new kid in Congress. He’s been there for 25 years.

Dovere: You’ve talked about building resources for future candidates in South Carolina. There’s another Senate race and a governor’s race in South Carolina in 2022. Are you going to be in either of those?

Harrison: Not that I know of, in terms of my name on the ballot. That would be new to me.

Dovere: Are you ready to say outright that you’d want to be DNC chair instead?

Harrison: The president-elect is going to have to make that decision. But let me tell you, my number gets called, and I’m there. I believe that I bring some unique skills to bear. I’ve served as the associate chair of the DNC, so I know the building. I’ve been a state-party chair, worked on Capitol Hill at the highest level, so I know members of Congress. I’ve been a candidate. I’ve raised more money than any other Senate candidate in history. So all of the things that you think you need in a DNC chair, I think I’d bring some skills to bear. I would love to serve in that capacity if asked.

Dovere: If you were the chair of the party, how would you say the party should handle issues like embracing socialism or “Defund the police”?

Harrison: I tell folks to reflect the values of the folks in your district. And that’s the thing that is really, really important. We aren’t a cookie-cutter party, and that means we’re not going to take cookie-cutter approaches. I already said I don’t believe in defunding the police. I said it multiple times every time I got out there. The nature of these things, people go and try to tag you with things even when you don’t believe them. But we can’t be afraid as a party to tag them back. If there’s anybody that’s for defunding the police, it’s the Republican Party. Donald Trump submitted a budget this year that cuts $500 million from community policing. Right now, they haven’t passed the Heroes Act in the Senate, which means that police departments across this country—I know several here in South Carolina—they had to cut their budgets by millions of dollars because they had not gotten the support they needed from the federal government.

Dovere: Many will look at this PAC and believe it’s all about softening the ground to be DNC chair. Are they wrong?

Harrison: If anybody knows me, they know that this fits right into my wheelhouse. I am a broken damn record as it relates to building capacity in the state.