Jaime Harrison spent over $100 million to fall short to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) by 10 percentage points. It was the most expensive defeat in history for a U.S. Senate candidate.
But three weeks later, Harrison has a simple explanation for what went wrong. “There were some Donald Trump coattails,” he told The Daily Beast, “that were pretty long.”
Indeed, the president supercharged GOP turnout in South Carolina, as he did elsewhere, and Graham ended up doubling his vote total from his last reelection, an easy win in 2014. The South Carolina senator ran less than a point behind his close ally at the top of the ticket, notching over 1.3 million votes. Graham himself came close to matching Harrison’s spending, and outside GOP groups spent tens of millions, too.
“Hundreds of thousands more voters were turned out, and they turned out and they voted straight Republican ticket for Donald Trump,” said Harrison. “And so that current was hard to swim against.”
Harrison’s next act in politics is animated by the idea that to eventually win as a Democrat in red states like South Carolina, you have to lose first—sometimes expensively—in order to change the political terrain.
In an interview, the Democrat was quick to point out that despite his disappointing result, there was return on investment: he earned 1.1 million votes, a high water mark for a Democrat in the state and just short of the number of votes Trump won when he carried South Carolina by 15 points in 2016. “It gave us a foundation by which to build upon,” said Harrison. “And Lindsey Graham just was able to take advantage of—again, the Trump coattails were very, very strong.”
With an eye toward a future without Trump’s coattails, Harrison is launching Dirt Road PAC, an organization he intends as a vehicle for Democrats to invest in candidates and build up party infrastructure in red and purple states and rural areas over multiple election cycles.
“I want to go into areas where people say, nuh–uh, I don't think Democrats have a chance here,” Harrison said. “I know we have a chance, we can compete, but you have to build a strong foundation.”
The work will begin immediately, said Harrison, with involvement in Georgia’s January runoff elections, which will decide control of the U.S. Senate, and then turn to Virginia’s statewide elections in 2021. Harrison has also been floated as a front-runner to helm the Democratic National Committee after President-elect Joe Biden takes office; asked by The Daily Beast, he said he had “no plans” on that front but would consider the job if Biden and other top Democrats wanted him to.
Heading into November, many Democrats believed Harrison would prove that the party was capable of winning in red turf not sometime in the future but right now—or at least capable of coming close.
A former South Carolina Democratic Party head with a compelling story and knack for communication, Harrison was considered one of the party’s best recruits this election cycle. But he also benefited from another asset that won’t be easy to replicate: deep, nationwide hatred for his opponent among the left, who seemed to drive Democratic money to Harrison every time he opened his mouth. Following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, Graham, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, became the leader of the GOP push to fill her Supreme Court seat —right before the election no less and in record time. His actions during that time only supercharged fundraising for Harrison, who raised $22 million in the first two weeks of October.
Equipped with the greatest Senate campaign war chest ever, Harrison funded an aggressive field operation in South Carolina and saturated the state’s airwaves with ads. Polls showed him within striking distance of Graham, and election forecasters rated the race a tossup.
But on Nov. 3, the Associated Press called the race for Graham less than three hours after polls closed, delivering one of the quickest resolutions to a nationally-watched Senate contest.
With Harrison’s loss—and defeats of other historically well-funded candidates in Maine, North Carolina, Montana, Iowa, and elsewhere—downcast Democrats are wondering if those hundreds of millions of dollars donated got them anywhere.
Asked why those dollars were a valuable investment, Harrison pointed to past candidates who were considered failures but helped lay the groundwork for future Democratic success—such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia, which went Democratic on the presidential level this year for the first time in decades after her 2018 run for governor energized a nascent Democratic coalition.
“Because they were able to build a foundation in those losses, it has made the races much more competitive going down the road,” Harrison said. The answer to the question of how Democrats in the future can combat a Trump-like surge in GOP turnout, he said, is deep investments in voter registration and other party-building measures.
“If the math doesn’t work,” he said, “you change the math.”
But looking back, Harrison rejected the idea that Democrats needed to drastically change their message. After several favored Senate candidates fell flat and they lost far more House seats than expected, Democrats have debated internally over whether they miscalculated by focusing relentlessly on health care for most down-ballot races.
“The polling said health care was a very important issue for so many people,” said Harrison, who attacked Graham for his desire to overturn the Affordable Care Act. “We talked about health care, all these issues, while Lindsey didn’t talk about any of those things… he tried to demonize me.”
GOP attempts to make Harrison and other Democrats radioactive by tying them to positions championed by the progressive left, like defunding the police, were a constant on the 2020 campaign trail. On Nov. 8, Rep. Jim Clyburn (R-SC)—the third-ranking House Democrat and Harrison’s political mentor—said the “defund the police” push hurt candidates like Harrison and cost the party House seats.
"Jaime Harrison started to plateau when 'defund the police' showed up with a caption on TV, ran across his head,” said Clyburn. “That stuff hurt Jaime.”
Asked whether he agreed, Harrison said, “these frames definitely don’t help.” The GOP seems to think so: the senators defending their seats in Georgia’s runoffs, Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA), are running the same play against their Democratic opponents, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, backed by millions of dollars worth of TV attack ads on defunding the police similar to the ones Clyburn decried.
“I think it's important that Raphael and Jon push back against that,” said Harrison. “It's important that we not just allow them to label us, but that we push back against that. And we began that effort, but I hope to see that my friends over in Georgia push back on that even more.”