Senate Democrats vent doubts Biden can beat Trump

Senate Democrats vented their doubts about President Biden’s ability to beat former President Trump in November at a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, but not one of them called for Biden to be replaced as the nominee, a sign that the president has quelled the rebellion in his party for now.

After the meeting, several senators said Biden’s strong determination to remain atop the ticket had mostly settled the debate for now, acknowledging that he has locked up the pledged delegates he needs to beat back any challenge at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Still, lawmakers say the discussion about whether to replace Biden won’t be going away, particularly as new polls show him trailing Trump in the wake of his disastrous debate performance last month in Atlanta.

After Democrats broke from the meeting, Cook Political Report released new Electoral College ratings for six states, moving them all in Trump’s direction. The nonpartisan forecaster moved Arizona, Nevada and Georgia from toss-up status to “lean Republican,” and Minnesota, New Hampshire and the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska from “likely Democrat” to “lean Democrat.”

A person familiar with the closed-door discussion within the Democratic caucus said the “vast majority” of senators who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting expressed serious concerns about Biden’s ability to beat Trump after the debate performance.

But the source said that while senators were “passionate” in voicing those concerns, they only “walked up to the edge” of actually calling on him to be replaced.

A second person familiar with the meeting said that Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said pointedly that they think Biden will lose to Trump in November.

The source said that other Democratic senators who spoke at the meeting warned that the party is “headed for serious trouble” in November if Biden remains the nominee.

“Other people said we’re in real trouble,” the source added.

A senior Democratic aide said Tester told colleagues at the meeting that “Biden is not doing a good job of reassuring the American public, and him, that he’s up to the job for the next four years.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on a wide array of senators with different viewpoints to share their thoughts at the lunch, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), who faces a competitive reelection race in Wisconsin — another presidential battleground state — said many of her constituents are deeply concerned about Biden’s ability to beat Trump and serve another four years in a highly demanding job.

“I traveled the entire state during the recess, over the holiday, and I heard a lot of input from my constituents with expressions of concern about the president’s capacity to win this election, so I think everyone is looking very carefully at his performance this week, and it will be very informative,” she said.

A poll of 1,052 likely Wisconsin voters commissioned by AARP and conducted after the debate found Trump leading Biden 50 percent support to 45 percent in the key battleground state.

“Nothing has changed. I think we’re going to continue to have the healthy conversation that we had today and go on from there,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who said last week that Biden’s debate performance raised serious questions about whether he can serve another term.

Whitehouse declined to say whether he thinks Biden can beat Trump in November, telling reporters, “I think I’ll just steer clear of all of that and refer questions about him to the leader.”

A Democratic senator who requested anonymity said that while Biden remains the party’s likely nominee, “anything is possible” going forward, including the possibility of an open convention in Chicago, if Biden changes his mind about staying in the race.

A Senate Democratic aide said if Democratic senators were privately polled on the question of whether they think Biden will beat Trump, “47 out of 50 would say no.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Bennet both made forceful arguments at Tuesday’s meeting that Biden needs to spend more time and energy talking about his vision for the American economy and how to tackle growing income and wealth disparities, according to senators who attended the meeting.

“The working class in this country is hurting, we have unprecedented income and wealth inequality, we have a political system dominated by billionaires. We have to speak to the needs of the working class to take on powerful and wealthy special interests and prove that we can stand for ordinary people. We do that, we win,” Sanders said, repeating the message he delivered to colleagues at lunch.

When asked whether Biden can effectively deliver that message, Sanders declined to answer.

Sen. Bob Casey (D), who faces a tough reelection race in swing state Pennsylvania and who campaigned with Biden on Sunday, said the president can still win the state but warned it won’t be easy.

“It will be hard,” he acknowledged.

A recent Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll conducted after the debate showed Biden trailing Trump by 7 points in the Keystone State.

Casey, however, said he’s focused on his own race.

“I got a job to do as a candidate. I got to keep working everyday to make sure people know the difference between my opponent and me. We’re in a tough race,” he said.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said some colleagues voiced their concerns about Biden’s viability as a candidate at the Tuesday lunch, just as they have done publicly in recent days, but he said Biden’s letter to Congress on Monday declaring his intention to stay in the race has quelled expectations of a quick change atop the ticket.

“I certainly have confidence in him as the nominee. He’s not just going to campaign hard — we’re going to win in November,” he said.

Padilla said the discussion among Senate Democrats was “a lot of what we’ve been hearing publicly” and included “some questions and concerns that have been raised.”

But he said Biden’s letter to Democratic lawmakers has given them their “answer” about the prospects of replacing him with Vice President Harris, California Gov. Gavin Newsom or another candidate before the November election.

“I think we got our answer when the president sent us a letter yesterday morning,” Padilla said, noting there are fewer than 120 days until the election. “It’s time to direct that time and energy to organizing voters and getting out the vote.”

Asked if Biden’s letter had closed the door on further discussions about finding a new nominee, Padilla said, “In my mind, yes.”

The White House appeared to step up its outreach to senators after the meeting.

White House chief of staff Jeff Zients called Brown as he walked onto the Senate floor after the meeting, but Brown could not be reached to discuss the nature of the conversation.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who led off the discussion at Tuesday’s lunch, presented a strong and passionate defense of Biden’s record and ability to win in November.

Coons, a national co-chair of Biden’s campaign, said he told colleagues that “Joe Biden has an incredible record of accomplishment” and “Donald Trump is the greatest threat to our democracy in our lifetimes.”

“This is NATO week. If you’re talking about NATO week … emphasize that Donald Trump has said publicly that ‘I’ll let Russia do whatever the hell they want with our NATO allies if they don’t pay up,’” Coons said, summarizing his comments.

“It’s understandable folks have some concerns about the debate. Donald Trump had a terrible debate. Donald Trump said things on that debate stage over and over and over that were outright lies,” Coons added. “Yet, we’re spending all of our time talking about one candidate’s performance and not the other.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), one of the most influential women in the Senate, issued a statement Monday evening declaring that “President Biden must do more to demonstrate he can campaign strong enough to beat Donald Trump” and pointed to it again after meeting with her colleagues Tuesday.

“Our nominee must be able to articulate what Democrats have accomplished and everything we will do to make life better for American families and protect their freedoms — like making child care affordable and accessible to parents everywhere,” she said in her statement.

Some Democrats saw Murray’s statement as a tacit challenge to Schumer, who reaffirmed his support for Biden remaining the nominee.

“As I said before, I’m with Joe,” Schumer told reporters when asked about Biden facing a potential challenge for the nomination from within his own party.

This story was updated at 7:22 p.m.

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