Biden's debate performance leaves down-ballot Democrats anxious — and quiet

President Joe Biden's debate performance spurred anxiety and silence among some Democrats running in competitive races across the country

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — President Joe Biden's unsteady debate performance reverberated among candidates up and down the November ballot on Friday, but nervous Democratic candidates mostly kept their discomfort to themselves or downplayed it, even as gleeful Republicans looked to seize the opening.

Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is facing a tough reelection bid against a Trump-endorsed Republican, distanced herself from Biden and did not answer questions Friday about the debate or calls for him to be replaced at the top of the ticket.

“Tammy Baldwin is running her own race for the people of Wisconsin,” said her campaign spokesman, Andrew Mamo, who later added: "Tammy supports the president.”

With control of both chambers of Congress hanging in the balance in November and Democrats defending far more Senate seats than Republicans, both parties understand the stakes.

“It was a bad night for the president. I don’t think he did well in that debate. But I am confident the President and our party can turn it around," said California Rep. Ro Khanna, a surrogate for the Biden campaign. “And the top of the ticket is very important for down-ballot races, especially in swing districts.”

The Republican Senate campaign arm, meanwhile, looked to seize the moment, releasing a new ad Friday that linked Democrats to Biden’s debate performance. The video featured battleground Senate candidates like Baldwin, Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, and Montana’s Jon Tester defending Biden, interspersed with clips from his debate performance.

“Senate Democrats have spent years propping up Joe Biden despite his obvious mental deficiencies, now the world can see he isn’t fit for the job. This disaster is on their hands,” said Philip Letsou, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Democrats in Michigan have enjoyed recent success but are defending an open Senate seat and face several tight congressional contests.

“The debate performance matters, just like everything else that happens at the top of the ticket matters to people who are running for down-ballot offices,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist in Michigan.

In Maryland, where Democrat Angela Alsobrooks faces a tough race against former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for an open U.S. Senate seat, Gov. Wes Moore remained positive about her candidacy in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.

“What’s clear to Marylanders is that Angela Alsobrooks has a vision for the future that affirms our freedoms. Abortion rights, economic opportunity, combating gun violence — those are the issues Angela will champion in the Senate," Moore said in a statement. "She will be the 51st vote in the U.S. Senate and protect our Democratic majority."

In Pennsylvania, some top Democrats moved to defend Biden, while Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who is defending his seat in November, remained quiet.

Gov. Josh Shapiro acknowledged that Biden had a bad debate, but said it doesn’t change the fact that Trump was a bad president. Democrats, including Biden, need to be crisper in delivering that message, Shapiro told CNN.

“I would say to all those folks who are out there worrying right now, ‘start working and stop worrying,’” Shapiro said.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Fetterman — who won his seat after weathering a difficult debate in 2022 while dealing with the effects of a stroke months earlier — responded on social media, telling Democrats in profane terms to chill out.

“I refuse to join the Democratic vultures on Biden’s shoulder after the debate,” Fetterman said. “No one knows more than me that a rough debate is not the sum total of the person and their record.”

The campaign of Casey’s opponent, Republican David McCormick, accused Casey of lying about Biden’s fitness to be president. McCormick suggested that Biden’s Cabinet should consider forcing him out of office, using the 25th Amendment.

“If what we saw last night is reflective of what he is like day to day, when they’re sitting with him talking about how to deal Iran, the possibility of Iran has a nuclear weapon, attacking U.S. troops in Syria … if you’re the secretary of defense or attorney general or secretary of state, you have a responsibility to say ‘hey, wait a second, this guy is not up to the job,’” McCormick told KDKA radio in Pittsburgh.

Down-ballot Democrats have exceeded expectations in swing states in recent years, especially when running on issues such as abortion. A red wave that was predicted in the 2022 midterms never materialized as Democrats celebrated a voting majority in the Senate, key victories in governors’ races, and a near miss for control of the House.

“I believe what’s most important back home is they just want to know that we’re fighting for them,” said Rep. Don Davis, a North Carolina Democrat.

Rep. Greg Landsman, a Democrat who is running for reelection after taking his Ohio district from a Republican in 2022, said his takeaway from the debate was, “I better do my job as well as humanly possible.”

He said he is still trying to decide how vigorously to support Biden and would take the measure of his constituents.

“You get out, spend the weekend, hear from folks and go from there,” he said. “It has always been incredibly grounding.”

Meanwhile, House Republicans in difficult reelection campaigns were mostly heartened by Trump’s debate demeanor. They said voters’ attention would now be on Biden’s age as well as the policy records of the candidates.

“I think the American people saw from President Trump what they know about President Trump. Nothing last night surprised them,” said Rep. Marc Molinaro, who represents a New York district where Biden drew more support in 2020. “I think the American people saw with President Biden’s performance something they didn’t necessarily want to acknowledge.”

Molinaro said Trump’s ability to draw voters who may not vote otherwise could help him.

Another Republican running for reelection in a district Biden previously carried, Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona, said he was ready to back Trump.

“The president — the top of the ticket — sets the tone a lot of ways,” Cisomani said. “This just shows Trump’s strength in this, his ability to communicate the issues, his record as well."

One candidate on the ballot made no effort to distance himself from Biden. In fact, he appeared with him at his post-debate rally in North Carolina. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Stein was met by roaring applause as he walked onstage at Biden’s rally. Chants of “Josh!” echoed through the crowd as he delivered his speech.

At the first mention of his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the audience erupted in boos. Stein said Robinson’s vision for the state is “one of division and hate.”

The challenge of the campaign, he said, just means North Carolinians need to show up in November.

“We will keep the White House and we will build a state and country that is safe and prosperous for everyone."

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Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; Makiya Seminera in Raleigh, N.C.; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa.; Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md.; Lea Skene in Baltimore; and Stephen Groves in Washington contributed.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP