Democrats fear replacement scenarios as much as keeping Biden

They’re not writing anything down. They’re not making any firm commitments.

But between staring into phones that started buzzing about three minutes into the debate and haven’t stopped since, several of Joe Biden’s leading possible Democratic replacements and top aides have started to think through what an unprecedented last-minute fight into the August convention might look like.

They’re already carefully monitoring their prospective opponents’ moves as they go, looking both for openings and ways to call them out for getting ahead of the president. Multiple people connected with other candidates, for example, noted the “interesting timing” of an already-scheduled fundraising appeal that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s PAC texted out on Friday evening that reads almost like a mission statement for her and points out how she won in her key presidential battleground state.

More than two dozen top Democratic officials, political operatives and donors tied to Biden and to many of the people most discussed as potential substitutes – many of whom asked for anonymity to discuss the most politically fraught situation most have ever encountered – say they’re terrified by nearly every scenario: Going forward with Biden, a Kamala Harris nomination, a nomination of someone else who would in that case have beaten the first Black female vice president, long nights of multiple ballots spilling ideological and personal feuds on national television, even just revelations of embarrassing details about people who have never been vetted by a national campaign.

“It would be a Category 5 hurricane,” said one top Democratic official nervous about Biden considering what would happen if the president stepped aside. “People don’t understand the sheer destruction that would be unleashed.”

To others, that stems from a prisoner’s mentality that doesn’t consider how much resistance there is to Trump.

“I think we can absolutely swap and win,” said a major Democratic donor. “If Joe Biden’s the nominee, we’re all in. If someone else is the nominee, we’re all in.”

A CBS News/YouGov poll out Sunday morning found only 55% of registered Democratic voters saying Biden should continue running, with 45% saying he should step aside. Biden campaign aides have spent the last couple of days pointing to metrics like some of their best grassroots fundraising days and a surge in job applications since Thursday.

None of the speculation matters if a president who will be three months older by the next scheduled debate doesn’t step aside. So far, he has stuck to an apologetic but defiant posture in public while in private saying he knows how bad his performance was but that he still thinks his candidacy is the only way forward.

And since he won all the primaries, he controls most of the delegates, which means that they can only vote for someone else if he decides to pull out.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, alongside granddaughters Natalie left, and Finnegan, second from right, make their way to board Air Force One before departing McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington, New Jersey on June 29, 2024. Biden is heading to the Camp David presidential retreat where he was expected to spend the rest of the weekend. - Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats feeling the ground move beneath their feet

Multiple Democratic officials and operatives, some of whom are affiliated with alternatives and those who are not, rage that Biden has demonstrated too much of an ego to have bowed out before. The president’s argument that he was the Democrat best able to beat Trump, several said, has now been turned on its head and they are left feeling he’s the option least able to beat Trump.

They say the president’s inner circle who have been running the campaign and prepared him for the debate – and who told some privately ahead of Thursday night that the prep had gone well – are either not being honest or are not capable of steering him either toward an exit or a recovery. At a LGBTQ fundraiser in New York City on Friday night, one attendee said some of the conversations even turned against Jill Biden, with the deep love for her as the quirky reluctant political spouse quickly curdling into exasperation that she is not willing to make the move that would lead to them leaving the White House.

Even as minds turn to a list that includes Harris, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Whitmer, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and even relatively new Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, none have gone public with anything but words of support for Biden. They worry about being called traitors. They worry that it might make Biden dig in more.

A debate watch party in Los Angeles on Thursday night happened to feature Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff, Pritzker, Whitmer and Beshear. There were other high-profile attendees – by a few answers in, Rob Reiner was screaming about losing and Jane Fonda had tears in her eyes, according to people in the room.

Even Barack Obama is choosing his words carefully. When asked about the debate by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries at a fundraiser for House Democrats, he said Biden has “the values that reflect the best in America,” but politics is a “team sport,” with the president as “the captain.” He added that getting Jeffries to be speaker is “probably the most important thing we can do for the Biden reelection campaign as well.”

Biden campaign aides dismiss not only the possibility that he will drop out, but that anyone could actually do better, or go up against Trump with a list of supporters that runs from progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to conservative GOP former Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

“You win elections by bringing everyone under one banner. If the imperative to you is winning, the best chance we have of doing it is the guy who has been in the White House, has a historic record of accomplishment and already beaten Donald Trump once, and not any of this mess,” a senior Biden adviser told CNN.

But in one demonstration of the scramble that the campaign is in over how to shoot down the replacement talk: on Friday morning, Biden aides said on a call that included a number of Democratic operatives that it would be dispatching Donna Brazile, the former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, and leading Democratic operative Stephanie Cutter to explain why replacement would be a fantasy.

Brazile, who has written about how she looked into the possibility of a post-convention replacement of the nominee after Hillary Clinton’s stumble at a September 11 event in 2016, told CNN that she was not told this in advance. Cutter said she had not been either.

But both said they remain committed to Biden and urged others to do the same.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who eyed a possible 2024 run of his own had Biden decided not to run, said he had dinner with Biden on Saturday night at a fundraiser he and his wife hosted and felt confident sticking by the president. Still, he mentioned the president’s age twice in a brief interview, saying “he’s 81.”

“There are very few people who can span the broad interests of our beloved Democratic Party in the same way he can. And he’s proven that,” Murphy said. “That’s not a prospective, ‘Hey, I think he could do this.’ He has done it. Not sure who else can do that.”

Murphy said he hadn’t considered another option because “based on every data point, a dimension that I’m aware of, he’s not going anywhere.”

Harris’ advantage going into an open convention

If there is an opening, most agree Harris would have the early edge.

If Biden did make a sudden exit, there would be pressure for him to give his party some direction, and doing anything other than tapping his vice president would be a snub bigger than when Obama wounded him so deeply by making clear that he saw Hillary Clinton as his own successor in the run-up to the 2016 election. To a convention hall full of loyal Biden delegates trying to recover their equilibrium, endorsing Harris could carry a lot of weight.

A Harris backer insisted that the interest in anyone else at this point is just “the appeal of the unknown.” Being unknown can have benefits, such as not having any of the entrenched bad feelings that have come to define her in the minds of some voters. But it also means that none of them have had their pasts and records delved into the way she has over her abbreviated presidential campaign, her time as running mate and as vice president.

As the other name on the Biden-Harris campaign, the vice president would also be the only one legally able to take over the entire existing operation, along with all the money already raised – a fact overlooked by the Biden campaign in an email from deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty to supporters, which insisted that an alternative starting with zero dollars in their bank account would be “a highway to losing.” That would be on top of being the potential replacement with the largest national name recognition. She also stands even or a little ahead any of the other contenders in most of the polls that have posed the question of replacing Biden.

People around Harris have of course considered all this. But her approach since the debate has been to put herself forward as the most dutiful and most loyal defender, to the point that the first lady – who has made her frustrations with Harris clear in the past – on Friday night picked up the defense that Harris landed on immediately after the debate.

The vice president’s “I’m not going to spend all night with you talking about the last 90 minutes when I’ve been watching the last three-and-a-half years of performance,” which people in her orbit say she came up with on the fly herself, has since been picked up by campaign operatives in addition to the first lady.

Harris would have other advantages too. A top outside political adviser, Minyon Moore, was months ago named the official in charge of convention proceedings, and others like her former chief of staff Tina Flournoy and Brazile have key committee roles too. Nor are her supporters shy about making their opinions known.

In an interview, Brazile said that her reaction to the calls that she has been getting since the debate with people inquiring about other candidates is: “How the f**k are you going to put all these white people ahead of Kamala?”

Backers of other possible candidates acknowledge that the internal feelings of deference toward her would be widespread and hard to overcome, and fears about the backlash among Black and women voters from ditching her would run extremely high.

“Biden‘s not stepping down and Kamala Harris gets the first shot in any open convention scenario,” said one DNC delegate fond of one of the alternatives.

Still, many worry that that’s the kind of feeling that could mean much more among delegates to a Democratic convention than a wider electorate, and that it would just be setting her up to be the one carrying the banner into defeat.

The logo for the Democratic National Convention is displayed on the scoreboard at the United Center during a media walkthrough on January 18 in Chicago. - Scott Olson/Getty Images
The logo for the Democratic National Convention is displayed on the scoreboard at the United Center during a media walkthrough on January 18 in Chicago. - Scott Olson/Getty Images

Potential for long nights fighting on national TV

Not everyone is convinced. In a time of crisis for the Democratic Party like what this would open up, a combination of ambition and sense of duty would clearly be enticing. People connected with other prospective candidates say that Harris’ years of scrutiny, association with Biden and her own word-salad answers could be too much to let her get a free pass.

Some are already gaming out Harris failing on the first ballot and jumping in then.

“Would it be very hard and challenging? Yes. but I think there’s actually a benefit to whoever the white knight is, riding in on a horse to save the campaign and the country,” said one senior Democratic operative.

But that probably would mean multiple candidates rushing around the convention floor making all sorts of promises, going through multiple ballots, with a melee of clashing candidacies and other interests all on non-stop coverage.

Not to mention that it’s been decades since the last floor fight. The happy activists who tend to get picked as delegates don’t know how to cut backroom deals. They don’t even know the rules.

Democratic operatives always like to mock headlines that describe them as “in disarray.” Now some tell CNN they worry they could end up in more disarray than ever.

Some operatives are already daydreaming about who would be part of various outreach teams, which chits they’d be able to call in from previous support, what strengths they’d emphasize about their preferred candidates and what points could undercut prospective opponents. This kind of showdown would almost certainly benefit politicians who could get good teams together quickly, several acknowledged, making a Cinderella story less likely than an established force who moves in hard and fast.

Democratic operatives know that political junkies will love it, but they worry about the message that will send to the country overall as they try to put themselves forward as the alternatives to Trump-style chaos and fighting. That, several said, doesn’t look like a formula for winning either.

“President Biden is the nominee and he’s going to remain the nominee,” said Cutter, who is on contract to produce the convention. “For those who are for looking for some sort of interparty fight, be careful what you wish for because that would ensure a Trump victory.”

Among some, talk has turned to just soldiering through, hoping that the polls don’t show a collapse and the debate panic fades into the July 4 holiday. Biden himself claimed at a fundraiser in the Hamptons on Saturday that “voters had a different reaction than the pundits” and he’s seen polls that show the voters are backing him more after the debate.

“One hundred percent, he’s the nominee,” said California Rep. Robert Garcia, an avid Biden backer. “Anything else is unserious chatter.”

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