Democrats Need to Invest In State Parties, Not Just Rock Star Candidates

New DNC chair Jaime Harrison is borrowing from the Howard Dean playbook

Jaime Harrison. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Jaime Harrison, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, knows fully well the power that an individual candidate can have on their state party’s bottom line. After all, though he lost his Senate race in November against incumbent Lindsey Graham, Harrison still raised $130 million — $15 million of which he diverted to the South Carolina Democratic Party, according to Federal Election Commission filings. That made Harrison by far the state party’s biggest source of cash; it raised $22 million overall during the last election cycle.

Yet Harrison isn’t exactly looking back on his fundraising efforts as an example of a new winning formula for the party — it’s more of a warning. He felt obligated to transfer so much money to the South Carolina Dems because the national party had not invested in state parties for the long term — especially not in Republican states like his. Without his contribution, the S.C. Dems would not have been able to spend as much on other local races.

“We need to think about what additional resources we need to bring to help state parties so that their work is continuous work and not something that just stops at the end of the cycle,” Harrison, who was chairman of South Carolina’s Democratic Party before he ran for Senate and became chair of the national party, told GEN.

It’s a sentiment that was echoed by other state party chairs who have been arguing for years for a return to a tried, tested, and curiously abandoned model for the role of the DNC. Jane Fleming Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said the main conflict among Democratic leaders these days is not whether to embrace progressive versus moderate policies, but whether resources should be centralized or put into state parties, as they were briefly in the mid-aughts

“We know all of our media folks. We know the rising candidates. We know the current elected officials. We know the landscape. We know the issues,” she said, referring to state parties. Yet the national party all too often has treated state parties as a nuisance and an obstacle, according to Kleeb. That’s not the case on the other side: The Center for Responsive Politics found in September that the Republican National Committee had transferred over 20 times more money to state parties in swing states than the DNC had.

This doesn’t mean Democrats as a whole disregard state parties; the RNC had a cash advantage in 2020, and many Democratic donors gave directly to candidates rather than to the committee. But it does indicate the DNC’s relationship to some states and how it treats emerging battleground states. Whereas Republicans spent $1.1 million in solidly Democratic California between January 2019 and the end of August 2020, the DNC spent just $795,899 in Texas, a traditionally red state that Democrats have been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to flip.

Still, Harrison said he wants a system in place so that candidates only need to focus on winning their races and not shoring up their state parties. “Let’s get to the point where candidates can just do what candidates need to do and not also have to try to do the work of a state party in terms of resources and building an apparatus,” he said.

Harrison said he plans on helping Democrats build a strategy similar to the famed 50-state strategy that Howard Dean implemented when he became party chairman in 2005, in which the DNC sought to invest in every locality, regardless of how red or blue it was.

“If Democrats are really serious about keeping the majority in the United States Senate, you’ve got to win some states that are not traditionally blue states in order to get to that majority,” Harrison said.

Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for Dean’s DNC and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and worked with Harrison’s campaign, said the 50-state strategy made the Democratic Party more competitive in areas where it hadn’t been. Indeed, the 50-state strategy, he said, was the precursor to Stacey Abrams’ organizing strategy in Georgia, which led to Georgia flipping blue, casting its Electoral College votes for Biden and then electing two Democratic U.S. senators in January.

“It’s a continuation of those ideals, expanding the electorate and bringing more people into the process, which was at the root of the 50-state strategy,” Belcher said.

By all indications, the strategy worked. Democrats won back the House and the Senate during the 2006 midterm elections; in 2008, they gained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. According to Governing, Democrats in 20 historically Republican states like Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, and Texas made modest net gains between 2005 and 2009, including winning 39 state house seats, three U.S. House seats, and one U.S. Senate seat.

“Let’s get to the point where candidates can just do what candidates need to do and not also have to try to do the work of a state party.”

But the strategy was largely abandoned when Dean stepped down as chairman in 2009. Newly elected President Obama named Rahm Emanuel, who as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had clashed with Dean on the strategy, as his White House chief of staff. (Incidentally, Chuck Schumer, who led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the same time and also clashed with Dean, now leads Democrats in the Senate.)

In the four years after the DNC abandoned the 50-state strategy, Democrats in 20 historically red states saw a net loss of four governorships, 249 state House seats, six attorneys general offices, and three Senate seats and a 40% drop in House seats. Of course, the shift away from the 50-state strategy wasn’t the sole cause of Democrats’ decline in red areas. Political polarization, the rise of the Tea Party movement and its financial benefactors like the Koch brothers’ network, and the Republican Party’s historic obstruction of Obama, along with races becoming nationalized, all played a role in Democrats’ weakening during this time. But the end of the strategy did remove one tool Democrats had in their arsenal for remaining competitive around the country in down-ballot races as well as at the top of the ticket.

“It’s like we forgot all of those key lessons and fell back into the very significant trap of ‘we need to be candidate-driven,’” said Kleeb of the Obama era. Instead, she added, the party moved more toward fielding “rock star candidates.”

Similarly, Obama essentially created an alternative group, Organizing for Action, that received more attention than the committee.

Amanda Litman, who co-founded the progressive PAC Run for Something after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, said fundraising woes were also to blame for Democrats’ recent down-ballot losses: While Republican donors treat contributions like business investments, many Democratic donors — both big and small — often give based on intuition rather than rationality.

“You give because you’re inspired,” Litman said. “You give because you’re hopeful. You give because you’re mad.” But it’s hard to get angry or inspired by year-round canvassing, she said. Even if it can make the difference come election time.

“You can’t see it. It’s not going to make headlines. It doesn’t change a lot, which is actually sort of the point,” she said.

In the same vein, Belcher said, donors often prefer to give to super PACs, which don’t build parties, instead of the actual party committees.

“So, when I think about sort of the top challenge to Jaime and to the DNC right now is how do you party-build?” he said. “How do you become the central focus point for progressive money today when you have so many super PACs competing in that space?”

Harrison’s nomination as committee chairman won’t solve the internal divisions among Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, let alone before the 2024 presidential election. And much like how Dean and Emanuel clashed, there will also likely be pushback about investing in state parties when Democrats have a slim House majority, an urgent need to prevent any further losses.

Still, Harrison is hopeful that Biden is committed to the long-lasting health of the DNC.

“I would love for President Biden to be known as the best, not only one of the most successful presidents of a generation but probably one of the most successful party builders of the generation,” Harrison said. “The bones are there. We just need to put it all together.”

Writer, reporter @rollcall and music lover.

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