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Democrats fear Biden could jeopardize their chances of flipping the House

<i>Minh Connors/The Washington Post/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Rep. Jared Golden poses for a portrait in his office on Thursday
Minh Connors/The Washington Post/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Rep. Jared Golden poses for a portrait in his office on Thursday

By Annie Grayer, CNN

Washington (CNN) — In the days since President Joe Biden’s disappointing debate performance, a number of Democrats running in competitive districts have expressed their fear to the Biden campaign and the White House that the president remaining at the top of the ticket not only hurts the party’s chances of holding onto the presidency but also the coveted goal of winning back the House of Representatives from GOP control.

The Democratic lawmakers have expressed their belief that Biden could suppress voter turnout, which will be the deciding factor in a number of key races, and therefore hurt their ability to win in November, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversations.

Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, who represents a largely rural district in Maine that twice backed former President Donald Trump, said Tuesday in an op-ed he expects Trump to win in November “and I’m OK with that.”

Washington state Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez said Tuesday she believes Biden will lose but stopped short of calling for him to drop out of the race.

“About 50 million Americans tuned in and watched that debate. I was one of them for about five very painful minutes. We all saw what we saw, you can’t undo that, and the truth, I think, is that Biden is going to lose to Trump. I know that’s difficult, but I think the damage has been done by that debate,” Gluesenkamp Perez told CNN affiliate KATU when asked if Biden should remain in the race.

In particular, Democrats in the most difficult general election matchups are feeling the heat.

“The frontliners are not hesitating to tell the campaign how they feel,” one Democratic lawmaker familiar with the conversations told CNN. “They are saying they are going to lose if they have to run with Joe Biden.”

Retiring Rep. Ann Kuster, who represents a hotly contested swing seat in New Hampshire, told CNN’s Kasie Hunt she’s been in touch with both the White House and Biden campaign “about concerns about the president’s well-being are impacting house races, particularly challenging districts.”

“In order to respond to our constituents’ concerns, we need to demonstrate that the president is fit not just for the job, but for the campaign,” Kuster said. “Joe Biden has always done the right thing for his country, so that’s why I expect that this will get resolved. And that Democrats will be united behind the ticket.”

Another House Democrat from a deep blue state told CNN on Wednesday the last 24 hours have started to feel different.

The lawmaker described the flood of messages from delegates and rank-and-file Democratic voters in the last 24 hours as all saying essentially the same thing: “I love and respect the president, but it’s time.”

This Democratic lawmaker said this was the first time since Biden’s disastrous debate performance that delegates and rank-and-file Democratic voters expressed their desire for Biden to step aside.

And another Democratic lawmaker said that their assessment of Biden’s candidacy is that “it’s over, we are just waiting for the announcement. [Biden] is not there yet, will take a bit to get there, but it’s over.”

Asked if Biden’s interviews and events scheduled over the next few days could change that, the lawmaker did not think so. “It’s about the data,” this member said, noting that it is “getting worse.”

The White House tried to quell concerns Tuesday, with spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre opening her briefing saying: “First of all, I want to say, we understand the concerns. We get it. The president did not have a great night.”

She later added: “We’re not taking away from what the American people saw.”

Asked whether Biden regularly presents himself the way he did at the debate, Jean-Pierre cited a speech that Biden gave in North Carolina the day after the debate: “He understands that he’s not a young man,” she said, adding that his focus is going to be on continuing “to deliver for the American people on the issues that they care about.”

Asked about the Democratic concerns, Biden campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said: “The President has spoken personally with multiple elected officials on the Hill and across the battlegrounds since the debate.”

Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Washington state Democrat who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, remained emphatic in her support for Biden in a statement.

“The stakes are incredibly high this election, for all of us. That hasn’t changed after last week,” DelBene said. “The choice this November is crystal clear: Democrats who want to govern responsibly versus extremist Republicans obsessed with tax breaks for billionaires, rolling back reproductive freedom, and defending Trump’s attacks on our democracy. Our candidates are authentic leaders with proven records and I remain confident Democrats will retake the majority.”

Battle for control

Democrats have an uphill battle to retain control of the Senate. Republicans needs to pick up only one or two seats — depending on which party wins the White House — to flip control, and the races will come down to whether red-state Democrats can defy the partisan tilt of their states.

But the House is a different story.

Republicans control the House by a narrow margin and 17 of those GOP lawmakers were elected in communities that backed Biden in 2020. The dysfunction that has overshadowed the current Republican majority has emphasized the pitfalls of razor-thin margins but underscores how even the lower chamber can serve as a roadblock to the White House.

Another Democrat in contact with the Biden campaign said, “I know that I and others are stressing the importance of flipping the House as a last firewall in the case of a Trump presidency.”

But the response Democrats are getting back is largely to hold tight until the president and his inner circle can assess the damage done and chart a path forward.

“The Biden campaign has heard a lot of concern from strong supporters across the country but has asked for time to process and digest incoming polling data and to map out a strategy going forward” one Democratic lawmaker told CNN.

“Everyone is standing by the president as his campaign works to assess the damage done,” the lawmaker added.

The prevailing line from the campaign continues to be that Biden had a bad debate night that should not diminish the record he has built up in his first term, particularly compared to the danger that Trump poses.

Some Democrats, however, are not willing to wait.

Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas on Tuesday became the first sitting Democratic member of Congress to call on Biden to withdraw from the presidential race,  while a growing number of Democratic leaders are saying they want him to step aside for the good of the party — and the country.

During a call with Democratic House leadership Wednesday, some of the top Democrats in the chamber said that Biden needs to step aside while other members raised concerns about the frenzy that could ensue if he did so, a source familiar with the call told CNN.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who led the call, heard from many lawmakers with various points of view, but several people effectively told Jeffries that they want him to go to Biden and say it’s time to go, according to another source familiar with the call.

The meeting, which also included Democratic Whip Katherine Clark, House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar and key elected leadership members, aimed to take stock of the pivotal moment the Democratic Party is in and make sure all perspectives are heard, the first source familiar with the call said.

The second source added that Jeffries is currently in listening mode in conversations with his members but the source’s impression is that Jeffries is concerned.

Jeffries did not share with his colleagues in the meeting what his current assessment might be on the best path forward for Biden’s reelection campaign, a person on the call told CNN.

“He has assiduously not done that,” the person said, who also described Jeffries as currently being in listening mode.

What is not clear is whether Jeffries has yet to make up his mind, or whether he has, but is choosing to keep his views strictly private for now as his Democratic colleagues process the events of the past week.

Many House Democrats are waiting until Friday to see how Biden does in his sit-down interview with ABC News and on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, the person said. There is expected to be an “inflection point” of sorts within the House Democratic caucus when lawmakers return to Washington, DC, after the weekend.

Getting out there

The other prevailing sentiment lawmakers have been sharing with the campaign in recent days is their desire for the president to hold more events and media interviews if he is serious about putting his debate performance in the rearview mirror.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on House Foreign Affairs, acknowledged the day after the debate that it was a difficult night for Biden and said that the president should take steps to prove that he is capable of a second term by holding more town hall meetings and answering hard questions from the press.

“I think he’s going to have to put himself out there more,” Meeks told reporters.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, agreed.

“Obviously, he needs to take his message to the public. I think his strategy should be continue to engage,” Thompson said Friday.

The White House said Tuesday Biden will participate in a campaign event Friday as well as an interview with ABC News. They also announced a news conference next week as part of the DC-hosted NATO summit.

But the concern among the handful of Democrats, whom CNN granted anonymity to speak candidly, was whether more Biden appearances would help stop the drumbeat of anxiety about the president’s ability to remain at the top of the ticket.

“It will help if it proves he can be relaxed, freewheeling and fluent, but it will hurt if he’s entirely scripted on the teleprompter and seemingly exhausted. It all depends on what the public sees,” another Democratic lawmaker told CNN.

Publicly standing by Biden

Publicly, House Democratic leaders have stood behind Biden but have also pivoted the conversation to what they can control: winning back the House.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters “we are going to win the House in November” when asked about his reaction to Biden’s performance the day after the debate.

Biden called Jeffries as well as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday, sources told CNN, the first time that Biden spoke with the Democratic leaders since the debate.

The day after the debate, Jeffries and former President Barack Obama held a fundraiser for the House Democratic campaign arm in New York, specifically focused on the need for Democrats to take back the House, and raised $3 million, according to a source familiar.

In a further effort to tamp down concerns, Biden campaign also sent an email to the chiefs of staff for House Democratic members on Wednesday laying out the latest polling numbers and touting their recent $127 million fundraising haul, a source familiar shared with CNN. The campaign said their polling reflected a steady race, noting that polls “are a snapshot in time” and could fluctuate.

The No. 3 Democrat in the House, Aguilar, told CNN that Biden had a “tough night” at the debate but added “it’s all the more reason why I’m going to work every day between now and November to flip the House.”

Meanwhile, old guard Democratic lawmakers Reps. Jim Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi also weighed in Tuesday, with Clyburn backing Biden but offering that, if he weren’t at the top of the ticket, he would back Vice President Kamala Harris.

Pelosi, the former House speaker, said it was a “legitimate question” for voters to ask whether Biden’s debate performance last week was an “episode” or if it is “a condition” during an interview on MSNBC Tuesday.

The former speaker also said that she has heard “mixed” responses to the debate from donors and other people in her Democratic network. “Some are like, well, how can we subject the [nomination] process to what might be possible? And others are, ‘Joe’s our guy. We love him, we trust him.’”

“It is going to be up to Joe Biden,” she added.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s MJ Lee, Dana Bash and Sunlen Serfaty contributed to this report.

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