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Donors stress over path forward after Biden’s debate performance

<i>Austin Steele/CNN via CNN Newsource</i><br/>President Joe Biden speaks during the CNN Presidential Debate in Atlanta on June 27.
Austin Steele/CNN via CNN Newsource
President Joe Biden speaks during the CNN Presidential Debate in Atlanta on June 27.

By Gregory Krieg, MJ Lee, Jeff Zeleny, Arlette Saenz, Betsy Klein and Camila DeChalus, CNN

(CNN) — Less than 48 hours after President Joe Biden’s alarming debate performance, the Democratic donor class is in crisis, racked by anxiety over what — if anything — the party’s wealthiest backers can do to reinvigorate or replace Biden, whose campaign has commissioned new polling to assess the damage.

The vast universe of wealthy Biden backers and their political whisperers has split along three lines. One faction is arguing that a pressure campaign urging the president — who has been adamant he will not step aside — to drop out would be a self-defeating nonstarter. Another is calling for a middle-of-the road approach, saying party leaders should consider drastic steps only after the fallout from Thursday night is more closely examined.

Democratic fundraiser and strategist Dmitri Mehlhorn, who often works closely with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, another prominent donor, told CNN that while the first 10 or 15 minutes of the debate “was very upsetting to see,” Biden’s performance later in Atlanta and then at a high-energy rally on Friday in North Carolina had begun to settle his nerves.

In any event, he reasoned, Biden alone controlled his fate as the Democratic nominee.

“The smartest thing is to think through how you (as influential outsiders) operate, assuming no change,” Mehlhorn said. “And if there’s no change, if Biden wants to remain president, then any kind of a pressure campaign is just a waste of time and energy and effort and money.”

A third group of donors and advisers, with fewer direct ties to Biden world and less influence within it, is proactively calling on Democrats to quit wasting time and immediately begin the process of seeking out a new nominee with a little more than four months before a general election clash with former President Donald Trump.

The would-be favorites to step in for Biden, should he reverse course and leave the race, have been careful to pledge their support to the president and, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom has done, get out-front defending him.

“All this other talk … it’s unhelpful and unnecessary. We aren’t going to turn our backs because of one performance,” Newsom said in an email to supporters on Friday. “What kind of party does that?”

As the Biden campaign conducts extensive research in battleground states about the president’s standing, other leading Democrats have been less inclined to circle the wagons — instead warning that the party is doomed to defeat if it does not act decisively to change the equation.

Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who served alongside Biden in the Senate for decades, sought to set the tone in a pointed letter he dashed off to friends after the debate.

“All incumbent Democratic Senators should write to Biden asking him to release his delegates and step aside so the convention can choose a new candidate,” Harkin wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CNN. “A couple of Governors may need to do the same.”

Harkin said there was still time for a course correction and a new Democratic ticket, which he believes “would energize the party at all levels and capture the general public’s attention — many of whom would like an alternative to Trump.”

“This is a perilous time and is more important than Joe Biden’s ego,” Harkin wrote, “or desire to stay president.”

There does seem to be agreement among all sides over one thing: Ultimately, the decision will be Biden’s to make. There is no appetite for a clash at the Democratic National Convention this summer in Chicago — partly because there is no clear apparatus for pushing Biden aside, but mostly due to concerns that a floor fight, no matter the outcome, would do more harm than good.

“The party is in President Biden’s hands — for better or worse,” a Democratic senator told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid disrespecting the president or alienating the campaign. “He deserves our respect and space to reach any decision.”

The absence of an heir apparent to Biden who could satisfy the party’s perpetually warring factions while quickly bringing together competing donor networks is another significant hurdle for those pushing for immediate action.

“A true succession plan does not exist,” a senior Democratic adviser to the Biden campaign told CNN on Saturday. “That’s what makes all of this not just heartbreaking, but very problematic.”

Democrats are conducting new polls and research, throughout the weekend and into early next week, in an effort to gain a better understanding of the political fallout, particularly in key contests that will determine whether the party can win back its House majority and maintain its narrow control of the Senate.

A second longtime adviser said the only way Biden would even consider stepping aside — a move that is still very much an open question — is if he was presented serious data showing that he would not only likely lose his reelection bid, but also endanger down-ballot candidates in House, Senate and competitive local races across the country.

The Biden campaign has long had polling that found Democrats would still support those candidates even if they didn’t vote for Biden. If the president’s debate setback would make some of these voters far less inclined to vote at all — handing a turnout advantage to Trump and Republicans — Biden could be confronted with a starker decision.

Without that information, for now, the most prominent national Democrats, led by former President Barack Obama, are asking party donors to keep the faith.

For years, the relationship between Obama and Biden and their circle of advisers was strained by Obama’s decision to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2015 and urge Biden not to run. This moment “is even more fraught,” one longtime Obama adviser said Saturday, noting that Biden would have to ultimately reach “any decision about his next steps on his own.”

At a fundraiser for House Democrats on New York City’s Upper West Side late Friday, Obama did not take questions from donors in the audience as he spoke with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in what Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was in attendance, told CNN was more like a “fireside chat.”

The former president, as he did in a social media post earlier in the day, recounted to attendees his own dismal debate experience from 2012, repeated a message about the stark contrast between the two presidential candidates and said Biden’s values “reflect the best in America.”

Asked about the debate by Jeffries, Obama pivoted to a more expansive view of the situation.

“An appropriate message for this evening is that this is a team sport. The president is captain, and we need the White House, because of the enormous power of the executive branch,” Obama said. “But the critical need for us to regain the House and have Hakeem Jeffries as speaker should be sufficient motivation. And if we do our jobs on that front, that is probably the most important thing we can do for the Biden reelection campaign as well.”

But signs — literally — of dissent have been more prominent outside the fundraising circuit. When Biden arrived at hedge fund manager Rosenstein’s event in East Hampton, New York, on Saturday, his motorcade passed a group of people holding signs appealing for the president to drop out.

“We love you,” one said, “but it’s time.”

Once inside, Biden acknowledged the angst among the donors.

“I understand the concern about the debate — I get it,” the president said. “I didn’t have a great night.”

But he also pushed back against the some of the concerns voiced in recent reports.

“Voters had a different reaction,” Biden said, claiming that post-debate polling showed little movement except for some figures that “moved us up, actually.”

Rosenstein told CNN more than 200 people were expected at the event, which brought in additional donations the Friday morning after the debate. Actors Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick were among the hosts, and former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci was also on hand.

As he made his swing through the Hamptons, Biden was accompanied by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood mogul serving as a co-chair of his campaign. Biden’s team has tried to point to some fundraising bright spots in the days after the debate, saying the campaign brought in more than $27 million during a two-day period. Biden will be in New Jersey on Saturday night for another fundraiser, this one hosted by wealthy New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a former Democratic National Committee finance chair.

Those gatherings follow the mixed reviews that emerged from a Friday night event in New York City attended by Biden and headlined by rock ‘n’ roll legend Elton John.

“The vibe in the room was completely bizarre,” said a Democratic strategist who attended the event. “You’re having fun and the drinks are flowing, and Elton John was there — but you’re waiting for the gaffe, you’re waiting for the slip — magnified by the terror of the night before.”

Another donor in the room, Charles Myers, told CNN the panicky narrative around a donor exodus from Biden’s campaign was “frustrating” and “not what’s happening.”

“Yes, donors were nervous after the very bad debate performance,” Myers said, “but still very much on board and some want to do more.” The gathering in Midtown, he added, saw Biden in “great form,” and he had a “general sense” that while the debate “was really bad … the campaign is doing a course correction and all of us want to double the effort to help with that turnaround.”

“It’s time to do polling and find out if there are any potential replacements that poll higher than Trump,” billionaire businessman Mark Cuban, who recently came out in support of Biden, told CNN. Trump is politically weak, Cuban said, so a Democrat who could “step in and immediately change the race” would be “worth considering.”

For now, though, Cuban — who said he is not a donor to the Biden campaign but did attend a fundraiser in March to show his support — made clear the task of replacing Biden this late in the cycle would be uniquely challenging.

The former majority owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, who previously supported former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in the GOP primary, used a sports analogy: “At this point, it’s more like discussing an NBA or NFL game after the fact and wanting to trade players,” Cuban said.

Hoffman offered a variation on that theme in a Friday night email to friends — some of whom, he wrote, had been asking him “whether there should be a public campaign to pressure President Biden to step aside after his (very) bad debate performance last night.”

“I think such a campaign to get Biden to step down would be a bad idea,” Hoffman wrote, arguing that such steps might harden Biden’s resolve to prove his doubters wrong.

He also pointed to the president’s lively performance at the rally in North Carolina and to the way Republicans reacted following Trump’s felony conviction last month.

“They ruthlessly and immediately closed ranks,” Hoffman wrote, “because they understand that at this stage of the race, they must spend every minute and dime either boosting their old man, or tearing down ours.”

Another Democratic donor was more blunt about the state of play and the party’s choices.

“I don’t think (Biden) is going anywhere,” the donor told CNN. “This is the old horse we’ve got, and we need to ride him ‘til he’s ready for the glue factory.”

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