By Michael Scherer,
President-elect Joe Biden has chosen former Senate candidate Jaime Harrison of South Carolina as the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, as he moves to remake the national party infrastructure to better compete with Republicans.
Harrison, 44, a former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, raised more than $130 million in his effort to defeat Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) last year, making himself a well-known name among Democrats nationwide. His candidacy for the DNC chairmanship had been promoted by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Biden ally who played an instrumental role for Biden during the Democratic primary contest. Harrison’s selection was confirmed by two Democrats familiar with Biden’s decision.
Harrison, who is not expected to face an internal challenge, will arrive as the Biden transition effort has begun planning for a renewed focus on party building at the national level in the coming years. Former president Barack Obama had initially housed his own political operation at the committee, a decision that many Democrats now blame for allowing a weaker party structure that made it possible for Republicans to catch up, and in some cases pull ahead, in the race for data and organizing.
The Democratic National Committee, by tradition, does not have competitive internal elections after winning the White House, giving the incoming president the power to shape the party. This year, the election rules for open positions were not announced until Jan. 11, just three days before candidates were required to submit their names and 10 days before members were set to vote.
The open seats include the chair, five vice chairs, secretary, treasurer and national finance chair, and the winners of those seats, under party rules, must be as “equally divided by gender as practical.”
Governance of the committee is largely determined by the chair, who has the power over major decisions and is able to directly appoint members to key governing bodies within the party, such as the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which sets the calendar and rules for the presidential nomination process, and the Budget Committee, which tracks how money is spent.
The Rules and Bylaws Committee is expected to once again take up the question of how to change the Democratic nomination process for the 2024 election, with broad concerns within the party about the complicated caucus processes in Iowa and Nevada. Nevada party leaders have already taken steps to shift to a presidential primary process in 2024, a move likely to upset New Hampshire, which has long vowed to maintain its place as the first primary race.
The Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to produce a report about the concerns by the end of March. Harrison will play a role in shuffling that panel’s membership.
The second major position up for grabs is the vice chair, who runs the Association of State Democratic Committees and is elected directly by state party chairs instead of all party members.
Ken Martin, the current chair of the state parties and the head of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, is seeking reelection to the post.
“It is an exciting time to be a Democrat,” said Martin, who added that the party would need to grapple with downballot losses in the last election. “We need to also reflect on this last election, which in a lot of ways reminds me of that Rolling Stone’s song ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but You Get What You Need.’ ”
He said that conversations about the future of the Democratic nomination process had already begun, and that he supports a full discussion within the committee.
“The biggest question is: What does President Biden and Vice President Harris think about it, because they are the leaders of the Democratic Party,” Martin said.