The D.N.C. Has a Primary Problem


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As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, a 47-year-old who rose to his position two years ago from statewide politics in South Carolina and whose profile has risen along with his state’s, has to try to play mediator between angered state Democrats and a White House that expects fealty from the national organization. For now, Harrison is sanguine about all of it. The New Hampshire situation. Biden’s advanced age. The party’s declining share of many demographic groups, especially Latino voters and those without college degrees. A dire Senate map, where Democratic incumbents in Montana, Ohio and West Virginia could fall, along with the formerly Democratic senator in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, plunging Democrats into an indefinite minority.

In Harrison’s office at D.N.C. headquarters, which looks out on the dome of the Capitol, there hangs a portrait of Biden with Jim Clyburn, the 82-year-old South Carolina congressman whose endorsement and championing of Biden in 2020 is credited with rescuing his candidacy. Displayed over Harrison’s desk is a vintage sign for Ron Brown, who in 1989 became the first Black chairman of the D.N.C. Brown and Clyburn are both heroes to Harrison, who was Clyburn’s intern and, later, his director of floor operations when the congressman served as majority whip. A lucrative private-sector career followed as a lobbyist at the Podesta Group. With Clyburn’s blessing, he became chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Harrison then ran a very high-profile, extremely expensive and ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 2020 for the Senate seat held by Lindsey Graham. Now Clyburn’s protégé heads a D.N.C. that has put their home state, where Harrison still lives with his family, quite literally first.

Harrison insisted that Clyburn never advocated for South Carolina as the very first state — only for it to retain its status as the first of the Southern states. “I think, for him, he always wanted South Carolina — and I felt the same way — we enjoyed and took a lot of pride in being the first in the South,” Harrison told me on a June afternoon, sitting beneath that portrait. “People thought early on, Oh, God, Jaime’s the chair of the D.N.C., so therefore he’s going to put his finger on the scale for South Carolina. And everybody will tell you, I was evenhanded in this. The only thing that I wanted was that South Carolina would remain, because I think it’s earned its spot as an early state.” But South Carolina, of course, moved up, and Harrison is now thrilled. “National Geographic said that 90 percent of African Americans can trace one of their ancestors to South Carolina. In our primary, 50 to 60 percent of the people who vote in the Democratic primary will be Black folks. Think about how powerful this is, that the descendants of those enslaved people will be the very first people in this country to determine the most powerful person on the face of this planet. That’s transformative.”

A few dissidents in the D.N.C., made up of New Hampshirites and some Iowans, progressives and union members, see it differently: Biden is elevating a state that a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t carried since 1976. Beyond Clyburn, there are few Democrats of note in South Carolina, and the state has the lowest percentage of union membership in America. Progressive candidates could, cycle after cycle, meet a wall of opposition there.

The persistent quandary, which no version of the primary calendar could resolve, is how to account for the various long-range challenges of the Democratic Party. A first-in-the-nation South Carolina primary lends Black moderates, a pivotal Democratic constituency, the kind of clout that many believe they deserve. White rural voters — the sort who need to be courted in Iowa and New Hampshire — have not proved loyal to the Democratic brand. But there are only so many of them that Democrats can afford to lose in a general election. New Hampshire, which Biden carried by less than 10 points in 2020, is not guaranteed to be eternally blue.


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