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Jaime Harrison launches new PAC to help Democrats in Georgia runoffs as he eyes DNC chair

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CORRECTION Election 2020 Senate Harrison (copy) (copy)

Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison speaks at a watch party in Columbia after losing the Senate race on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Harrison is now launching a new political action committee to help Democrats in the Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs and beyond. File/Richard Shiro/AP

COLUMBIA — Jaime Harrison is not done yet.

Just three weeks after his defeat to Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham in South Carolina's U.S. Senate race, the former S.C. Democratic Party chairman announced the formation of a new political action committee Tuesday that will seek to help Democrats win a pair of pivotal runoff elections in neighboring Georgia.

The creation of "Dirt Road PAC" comes as Harrison has emerged as the top contender to become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee — a job he already sought once before in 2017 that would put him in a critical role overseeing the party apparatus through the forthcoming administration.

In his first post-election interview with The Post and Courier since losing the Senate race, Harrison said he wanted to create the PAC to build on the enthusiasm he was able to generate from Democrats across the country en route to becoming the best-funded U.S. Senate candidate in American history.

"I think part of the problem that we have is this idea that you can pick a cycle and pick a candidate and then all of a sudden we expect this immediate gratification and immediate change," Harrison said. "But in areas that have historically been left out and neglected, it's going to take a lot longer to really switch things."

The PAC is named after a story Harrison often told on the campaign trail about a South Carolinian he spoke to in a previous election cycle who had seen Republicans and Democrats repeatedly knock on his door to ask for his vote over the years only to consistently fail to pave the dirt road in front of his house, the one issue he cared about most.

Harrison said he has already raised over $450,000 for the Democratic candidates in the two Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs coming up on Jan. 5. Jon Ossoff is challenging Republican incumbent David Perdue, while Raphael Warnock is looking to unseat Republican appointee Kelly Loeffler.

Now, Dirt Road PAC will look to supplement that by helping raise resources for the Ossoff, Warnock and the Georgia Democratic Party. Harrison said he is also set to do a fundraiser for the Georgia party. 

With Republicans currently holding 50 Senate seats to Democrats' 48, the results of the Georgia runoffs will determine majority control of the U.S. Senate. If Democrats win both, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will serve as the tiebreaker to give Democrats the majority, but if Republicans win at least one they will maintain control of the chamber.

Graham and other South Carolina Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley, have been active on the other side of the Georgia races by fundraising and campaigning for Loeffler and Perdue.

In a Monday night interview on Fox News, Graham said he had raised $3 million combined for the Georgia runoffs, giving a million to each candidate and a million to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

Beyond the Georgia runoffs, Harrison said the PAC will engage in the off-year 2021 races in Virginia and broadly assist other Democratic candidates and parties in southern, rural states.

"The goal is to invest in those state parties and the local parties, to invest in candidates, to help recruit and train those candidates, and to do so on a long-term basis," Harrison said.

In the wake of Harrison's expensive 10-point loss to Graham, some political observers have questioned the importance of money to campaigns. But Harrison noted that, while he broke records with his more than $130 million haul, Graham also raised more than $100 million to fight back, and GOP groups kicked in tens of millions of dollars to assist him.

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"I don't want Democrats to think we can singlehandedly disarm while they (Republicans) bank all of these resources," Harrison said. "We've got to have the resources to compete and get our people out, and that's what I'm going to focus all my energy and efforts on."

After taking a few weeks to reflect, Harrison attributed his Senate loss largely to Republican support for President Donald Trump, which he said helped turn out more straight-ticket GOP voters than he expected. 

Like Clyburn and other more moderate Democrats, Harrison also said slogans like "defund the police" from more progressive members of the party "weren't helpful" for candidates like him who did not support those policies but were still tagged with them relentlessly in ads by Graham and other Republicans.

"Words have power and we've just got to be careful with it," Harrison said. "One thing I've learned in my years in politics is when you're explaining, you're losing."

Harrison's new PAC could serve as a launching pad for his likely next gig. He is widely considered the overwhelming favorite to replace Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, who plans to vacate the position at the end of his term in February 2021.

As is customary, DNC members are expected to defer to the choice of President-elect Joe Biden as the party's leader on who should take the helm of the committee.

But Harrison has a highly influential booster on his side in House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who is Harrison's longtime mentor and a close ally of Biden. Clyburn's endorsement of Biden days before the South Carolina primary is credited with helping Biden achieve the landslide victory that propelled him towards the Democratic nomination.

Harrison declined to reveal whether he had spoken to Biden about the DNC job since their last publicly known phone call on election night, saying only that he has "had conversations."

"But I'll say this, if he calls my number and says 'Jaime Harrison, I want you to be the next DNC chair,' I will accept," Harrison said.

After dropping out of the 2017 DNC race and endorsing Perez shortly before the vote, Harrison has now further bolstered his resume by spending several years as one of Perez's top lieutenants and with his well-funded campaign, assets he could leverage to make the case that he is now the man for the job.

"I've been the associate chair for the last four years, I've been a state party chair, I've worked on Capitol Hill so I know many of the members of Congress on a personal level, and I've also been a candidate whose raised a lot of money," Harrison said.

"So there's a lot of different skills and things I think I bring that are probably somewhat unique to find in one person, and I would be happy to bring those skills to bear on behalf of the party and this president," he added.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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