Frustrated Democrats watch for debate fallout as Republicans pounce on Biden’s poor showing

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat whose seat is crucial to maintaining his party’s slim Senate majority in November, faced a new attack ad Sunday from GOP challenger Dave McCormick’s campaign — one that Republicans across the country could emulate.

Casey, the McCormick ad claims, knew of President Joe Biden’s status, and stood by the president anyway.

The 35-second video features clips of Democratic operatives lamenting Biden’s poor debate performance against former President Donald Trump last week — and then features Casey publicly proclaiming that Biden is up for the job if he wins a second term. It ends with text across the screen: “When will Casey finally tell the truth?”

Casey, campaigning in Scranton on Monday, stood by Biden. “He had a bad night and debate, but I think people know what’s at stake,” he told reporters.

The McCormick video was an early glimpse at a new strategy House and Senate Republican groups have started to deploy as the consequences of the president’s shaky debate performance ripple through House, Senate and governor’s races across the country. Republicans are eager to turn the 81-year-old president’s struggles into an anvil, while Democrats gingerly navigate the most precarious moment to date in their bid to maintain control of the Senate and flip the GOP’s slim House majority this fall.

In the aftermath of Biden’s Thursday night debacle, Democratic members of Congress have largely stood behind the president in public.

That could change – very quickly – if post-debate polling and research show that Biden’s debate fallout is likely to cost Democrats the House come November. On CNN Tuesday morning, Rep. Mike Quigley, signaling an openness to replacing Biden at the top of the ticket, said, “we have to be honest with ourselves that it wasn’t just a horrible night.”

Another Democratic congressman, who only agreed to speak anonymously, told CNN:“The firewall is Congress. We need to have one of the bodies.”

This lawmaker said he and his colleagues would feel compelled to speak out – in a way they have not so far – and call on Biden to drop out if data comes out that shows: “Shit, he’s not just going to lose the presidency, but he’s going to lose the House.”

As CNN has reported, Biden and his team have been collecting and awaiting data – both anecdotal and public polling – as well as bracing for a broader round of Democratic campaign polling and research to get a clearer sense of the post-debate damage.

“House races have always been about the strength of our candidates, combined with the fact that Democrats deliver when in charge while extreme Republicans sow chaos,” said Viet Shelton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s why recent polling has been showing Democrats outrunning their Republican opponents across the battleground. That hasn’t changed after the debate.”

If the dam is still holding among Democratic lawmakers who have declined to publicly call on Biden to leave the race, then privately, elected officials – everyone from leadership to the rank-and-file members of Congress – are actively discussing a range of “what ifs”, sources said.

In private chats, lawmakers are discussing familiar Democratic names like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and others as possible replacements for Biden. They are also intensely sensitive about outright dismissing Vice President Kamala Harris, and the anger that the scenario of passing over the country’s first Black female vice president would unleash.

Those floated prospects have been sensitive about being seen as publicly nudging Biden to exit the 2024 race. Whitmer on Monday pushed back on a Politico report that she’d told Biden campaign co-chair Jen O’Malley Dillon that Biden could no longer win Michigan — a must-win swing state for Democrats.

“Anyone who claims I would say that we can’t win Michigan is full of shit,” Whitmer said on X.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a two-term Democrat in a deep-red state whose name is also in the mix of potential replacements and future presidential contenders, told reporters in his home state Monday that Biden’s performance in the debate was “rough” – but insisted that he still backed the president.

“It was a very bad night for the president,” Beshear said. “But he is still the candidate. Only he can make decisions about his future candidacy. So as long as he continues to be in the race, I support him.”

Republicans on the attack

The National Republican Senatorial Committee posted a video on social media interspersing endangered Democratic incumbents’ comments supporting Biden with some of the president’s worst moments in the debate.

“Democrats 2024: Don’t believe your lying eyes,” the Senate GOP campaign arm said in a post accompanying the video.

Jack Pandol, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a memo Monday that the House GOP’s campaign arm is preparing to take aim at Democrats “for gaslighting their own voters and refusing to take responsibility for the crisis the country now finds itself in.”

The NRCC dispatched trackers — staffers who record video of lawmakers and candidates and sometimes pose their own questions — to the US Capitol complex and airports in Washington and endangered Democrats’ home districts to pose questions about Biden’s fitness.

Pandol’s memo also highlighted the House’s partisan vote last month to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over the audio recordings of Biden’s interviews with former special counsel Robert Hur, who investigated Biden’s handling of classified material and declined to bring charges.

“The NRCC can weaponize these votes in paid advertisements, mail, digital, and earned media to pin Democrats to a conspiracy to protect a President Americans do not believe should be serving another term,” Pandol said in the memo.

What Democrats are saying

Democratic leaders have broadly stood by Biden in the wake of the last week’s debate. However, some down-ballot Democrats have been more critical.

Quigley, speaking with Kasie Hunt on “CNN This Morning” Tuesday, was careful to refer to Biden’s term in office as “one of the great presidencies of our lifetime,” but, the Illinois congressman added, “I think he has to be honest with himself.”

“This is a decision he’s going to have to make. He clearly has to understand – I think what you’re getting to here – is that his decision not only impacts who’s going to serve in the White House the next four years but who’s going to serve in the Senate, who’s going to serve in the House, and it will have implications for decades to come.”

Hunt pressed Quigley: “It sounds like you’re actually open to the idea that it might be the right decision for him to step aside.”

“I think what I’m stressing is, it has to be his decision. But we have to be honest with ourselves that it wasn’t just a horrible night,” Quigley said.

On Capitol Hill last Friday, some Democrats expressed alarm about Biden’s struggle to deliver clear answers in the debate.

“Joe Biden couldn’t communicate, and Donald Trump lied every time he opened his mouth,” Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig said.

Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider said “yeah” when asked if he was keeping the door open to replacing Biden as the Democratic nominee.

California Rep. Scott Peters called conversations about replacing Biden “premature,” but said he is “open to a conversation about how to win this election.”

“I think everyone is concerned about last night,” Peters told CNN. “So the campaign has got to convince a lot of people that this is a campaign we win.”

O’Malley Dillon sought to reassure party leaders and staff on multiple calls Monday morning as the campaign continues to manage the fallout from the president’s poor debate performance last week.

One person who was on the calls told CNN that O’Malley Dillon sought to be “reassuring,” and summarized her overarching message as: “This will pass, but we have to do our work.”

She also stressed that “it’s our job to keep everyone calm,” according to the person.

Some of the Monday morning calls that O’Malley Dillon led featured Democratic leaders and staff working for the DNC and the convention, the person said, and were previously scheduled. Participants were able to speak up if they chose to.

Some top Democratic officials and supporters close to the White House have balked at the tone and language that some campaign officials have taken as part of their defense. In particular, the decision by the campaign to refer to those who have called on Biden to drop out as “the bedwetting brigade” has fueled anger and dismay.

One senior Democratic official told CNN that tone was “disrespectful.” Another top Democrat in close touch with the White House said it was “disgusting.”

Multiple people taking issue with language like “bedwetting” told CNN that the tone is dismissive and wholly unappreciative of the very serious and widespread concerns inside the Democratic Party about whether Biden is fit to seek and carry out a second term.

In one fundraising email over the weekend sent under the name of deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty, the campaign acknowledged the widespread panic that Biden’s debate performance had caused.

“If you’re like me, you’re getting lots of texts or calls from folks about the state of the race after Thursday. Maybe it was your panicked aunt, your MAGA uncle, or some self-important Podcasters,” the email started. Later, the message said: “The bedwetting brigade is calling for Joe Biden to ‘drop out.’ That is the best possible way for Donald Trump to win and us to lose.”

Biden’s campaign on Monday launched a minute-long ad using remarks the president made in Raleigh, North Carolina, last Friday — part of an attempt to recast the debate between an aging but honest incumbent and a dishonest Trump.

“Folks, I know I’m not a young man,” Biden says in the portion of his speech used in the ad. “But I know how to do this job. I know right from wrong. I know how to tell the truth.”

It’s a message Democrats quickly latched onto as Biden and his family gathered at Camp David and his campaign seeks to minimize the damage among donors and Democratic allies.

Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean said Monday on CNN that Biden had “a bad 90 minutes. I don’t sugarcoat that.”

“But we have had a bad nine years since June 16, 2015, when Donald Trump came down the escalator,” she said, referring to the launch of Trump’s first presidential run.

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Michelle Shen contributed to this report.

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