House and Senate races draw renewed focus for Democrats after Biden's bad debate

President Joe Biden’s shaky debate performance has turned more attention in the Democratic Party on races further down the ballot, with donors, candidates and strategists looking for ways to shore up a congressional firewall against the chance of another Donald Trump presidency.

One major liberal fundraising group said it has seen a big uptick in donor interest in its down-ballot efforts. Battleground candidates are largely keeping their heads down amid intraparty handwringing about whether Biden should stay in the race. And Democratic strategists involved in House and Senate races are noting that their candidates have long been running far ahead of Biden in public and private polling, as the president has struggled to consolidate the party’s base, including Black voters and young voters.

The big concern now is that those voters, unenthusiastic about their choices at the top of the ticket and perhaps newly concerned about Biden after the debate, decide not to show up in November, depriving other Democrats of their votes.

“Look, there are concerns with the impact on down-ballot races, if the president doesn’t do well,” California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, his party’s Senate nominee, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“At present, our down-ballot candidates in the Senate and House are doing well. They’re all ahead. They are running well ahead of the president,” Schiff added. “But you can only run so far ahead of the president.”

And while just a few swing-seat Democrats have weighed in so far on Biden’s future as the party’s presidential nominee, they likely won’t be able to stay silent for long, especially as they are confronted with journalists in the Capitol hallways when they return to Washington this week.

Biden, for his part, has said he’s staying in the race.

“I am not going anywhere,” Biden told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “And I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t absolutely believe that I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump in 2024.”

Cash dash

Democrats are looking to hold onto their slim Senate majority and net four seats to take control of the House in November, and polls have shown more or less a dead heat in the race for the House for months. Yet one vulnerable House Democrat told NBC News, “Hell yes,” when asked if donors are worried.

The lawmakers spent the weekend immediately following the June 27 debate calling donors to boost end-of-quarter fundraising numbers.

One donor told the lawmaker, “We’ve been deceived. I’m only giving to Dem House members because they are our last hope,” according to notes the Democratic incumbent took during those conversations.

Pamela Shifman, president of the liberal donor group Democracy Alliance, said that the group has seen a boost to its down-ballot efforts, including super PACs known as Battleground New York and Battleground California that are focused on competitive House races in those states.

“We are seeing a surge of giving to initiatives like Battleground NY because donors recognize that investing in organizers is how we will win the House, the Senate and the White House this year,” Shifman said in a statement. “Mobilizing resources for organizers on the ground is exactly how we all stay focused right now to ensure we win up and down the ballot in November.”

In a recent fundraising email, the group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which opposed Biden during the 2020 Democratic primaries, openly courted donations by arguing, “The House may be our last firewall against Trump.”

“The specter of a second Trump presidency grows more possible, more alarming, and more terrifying by the day. We have to think the unthinkable. We need a contingency plan,” the group wrote, before identifying several Democratic House members in tough races and asking donors to help them.

Some Democratic campaign operatives working in down-ballot races also reported an uptick in donor interest.

“Donor calls have increased dramatically and people are starting to see the Senate as the top of the ticket,” said one Democratic strategist working on Senate races, later adding, “We’ve had an increase in both frequency and intensity in calls from donors of, ‘OK, this is our race now.’”

The day after the Biden-Trump debate, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., moderated a discussion with former President Barack Obama at a previously scheduled fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Obama stressed the importance of securing a Democratic House, according to two sources in the room. While there was not a broader conversation about the House being a firewall against Trump, one source did note that talk of a “firewall” did come up in side conversations throughout the night.

The fundraiser pulled in $3 million for the DCCC, and the committee also raised $1.3 million online in the four days following the debate, which also came during the regular end-of-quarter fundraising push, according to a source familiar with the committee’s fundraising.

But some working in down-ballot races pushed back against the notion that interest has surged in these contests, noting they have been a key focus since the start of the election cycle.

“We always understood that this election would be close and that there was some chance that Trump could win,” said Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, co-founder of the progressive donor network Way to Win, which is backing Democrats up and down the ballot through its aligned PAC.

“And so therefore, we’ve also set up the idea that we have to win across the board at every level, including the House, as part of a firewall,” she said.

Laying low — for now

As some donors have refocused on down-ballot races, many Democrats running in competitive states and districts have stayed quiet on Biden’s future as their party’s nominee.

Some Democrats have backed Biden, including Sen. Bob Casey, who campaigned with Biden in Pennsylvania on Sunday amid his own tough re-election battle in the state.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a vulnerable Democrat locked in a tough re-election race in Ohio, has not directly answered whether he believes Biden should stay or go. A campaign spokesperson pointed to remarks Brown made Monday during a visit to Youngstown.

“I’m not going to judge people in my party, what they’re saying or what Republicans are saying,” Brown said. “I’m not a pundit. I’ve talked to people across Ohio. They have legitimate questions about whether the president should continue his campaign, and I’ll keep listening to people.”

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who along with Brown is one of two Democrats running for re-election in states Trump carried in 2020, said in a statement: “President Biden has got to prove to the American people — including me — that he’s up to the job for another four years. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done: Stand up to President Biden when he’s wrong and protect our Montana way of life.”

Just one member of the DCCC’s “Frontline” program for vulnerable incumbents — Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn. — has said publicly that Biden should step aside.

Rep. Susan Wild, of Pennsylvania, did express concerns on a call Sunday with Democratic ranking members about Biden’s effect in competitive districts like her own, according to two people familiar with her comments. Wild said in a subsequent statement that she “expressed the same concerns that Americans across the country are grappling with, about President Biden’s electability at the top of the ticket.”

Other vulnerable lawmakers have signaled that they plan to stay focused on their own races.

“The president had a tough night, but I’m running a different race in my community,” Rep. Matt Cartwright, of Pennsylvania, one of five Democrats running in districts Trump carried in 2020, said in a statement. Cartwright also represents Biden’s hometown of Scranton.

“Northeastern Pennsylvania knows me,” Cartwright added. “They know I’m delivering good-paying jobs, lowering prescription drug prices, and sticking up for our rights.”

Vulnerable Democrats have been discussing Biden’s impact on their races, but they are concerned about speaking out in the event that Biden remains the nominee and comes to campaign in their districts, according to one senior aide to a battleground-district incumbent.

Whether more lawmakers speak out as they return to Washington remains to be seen.

“If you’re a Democrat in a tough race, you accomplish nothing by calling for the president to resign other than to ensure your message of what you’re doing for your state and why your opponent is bad gets completely drowned out,” one national Democratic strategist said. “If you want to have the conversation privately, that’s another matter.”

Former Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., a senior adviser to VoteVets, a group backing Democratic candidates with military and national security backgrounds, told NBC News that he has been in touch with candidates in recent days. “What’s actually remarkable though, is the degree to which these candidates are — just kind of have their head down,” Rose said.

“Our advice hasn’t shifted and the advice is very simple,” Rose continued, later adding: “People need to understand the magnitude of the decision before them. It’s about the future of our country and protecting the values and rights that we hold dear.”

“And those stakes have not changed in the past week, nor have they changed in the past year,” Rose said.

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