Democrats fret about hit to Senate chances after Biden debate debacle

Democrats are worried President Biden’s dismal debate performance could doom any slim chance the party has for holding its Senate majority by further depressing turnout in critical battleground states.

Democrats were already in a tough electoral spot, with Republicans only needing Montana or Ohio — in addition to their guaranteed pickup in West Virginia — to take the upper chamber. Thursday’s debate debacle only makes the road for incumbents in red or purple states more treacherous.

“Last night was a bad night for the president and it was not a good night for the Democratic Party writ large,” said John LaBombard, a former top aide to former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), and a Democratic strategist with ROKK Solutions. “It made it harder. It for sure made it harder. Every Democrat on the ballot would have benefitted from a terrific debate performance by Joe Biden.”

Biden’s performance — which featured a soft, raspy voice and meandering and sometimes-unintelligible answers — is raising the possibility that Senate Democratic incumbents and candidates will need to run their operations independent of the top of the ticket.

“They’re great candidates. They’re going to run their own races, as they should, in their states,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told reporters in the Capitol on Friday.

Cardin, 80, who is retiring this year, allowed that the president had a “bad evening” and that party members were looking for a “more energetic approach” during the event. However, he stood by him.

Much of the attention remains focused on Sens. John Tester (Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio), two red-state Democrats whose races likely hold the key to the majority one way or another.

Despite the poor debate, multiple Democratic operatives argued that Biden’s numbers were poor enough in both states that the impact might be negligible. But candidates in other states may feel it more.

“Of course it still doesn’t help to give more reason to unmotivated young and Black voters in Ohio to stay unmotivated,” said one Democratic operative who has worked on Senate races. “But I’m much more worried if I’m a Democrat who doesn’t have a free-standing personal brand like Sherrod Brown does.”

For now, Senate campaigns are figuring out how to react to what could be a campaign-altering evening, with some already trying to create more distance from the president. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s (D-Wis.) campaign said in a statement that she is “running her own race for the people of Wisconsin” and originally declined to say whether she still supports Biden.

Brown told News5 Cleveland, “I focus on my race. I’m not a pundit.”

Some strategists indicated they would know more next week when the first seedlings of internal polling is available, but they expressed confidence that senators’ independent brands can hold up.

“It’s tough. Every good senator has a unique brand in these states, and they’re going to need a unique answer on what they saw last night,” a second Democratic operative with experience on Senate races told The Hill. “And it should start with, ‘That wasn’t great.’”

“They can survive. There is a limit to how much voters are connecting the president to down ballot candidates. … If Biden gets worse, maybe there’s a little bit of a change. It’s not going to narrow to [1 percentage point] regardless of how Joe Biden looks,” the operative continued. “It’s not like people saw last night and were like, ‘I’m not a Democrat anymore.’ They said ‘Joe Biden doesn’t look great.’ Those are different things.”

But whether there will be an acute impact on top races remains in question.

Ahead of the midterm elections, some Democrats were reluctant to campaign with Biden largely over a lack of enthusiasm about him and his low approval rating.

Months before the 2022 election, then-Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan and then- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley both skipped Biden’s event in their home state of Ohio. They both ended up losing their races. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) also distanced herself from Biden at the time and won her reelection bid.

After his debate performance, some candidates for the House and Senate might distance themselves from Biden again this cycle.

“The performance at the top of the ticket can significantly influence down-ballot races, acting as either a drag or a boost. Last night, candidates from both parties faced challenges, but Biden’s difficulty in effectively making his case was unexpected and particularly troubling for Democrats,” said Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins, who was a senior adviser on Democrat Charlie Crist’s unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial run in Florida.

“If I’m a down-ballot candidate I may consider distancing myself from Biden to mitigate any negative impact from his perceived weaknesses,” he said.

Meanwhile, candidates in even true blue states also rely on a strong Democratic presidential contender at the top of the ticket. This year, that includes Democrat Angela Alsobrooks, who faces former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in a race that would be a major blow for Senate Democrats to lose.

Chatter about removing Biden from the top of the ticket started almost immediately after the conclusion of the debate, though for now the likelihood of that happening seems close to zero. The White House and Biden campaign dismissed the idea Friday, and top party leaders threw their weight behind the president.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), whose term is up in 2027, told Boston-based WBUR that “there are going to be a lot of discussions” among Democrats “about what happens next.”

Biden on Friday, at his first rally since the debate, acknowledged that he doesn’t speak as smoothly or debate as well as he used to, attempting to ease concerns among Democrats about his debate.

And, he gave a nod to Democrats who are standing with him despite his performance the night before.

“It’s good knowing you have my back,” Biden said to open his rally.

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