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July 10, 2024

Among CT’s congressional delegation, muted support for Biden

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Joe Biden campaigning for Ned Lamont, Jahana Hayes and Chris Murphy in 2018. Lamont was the first to return the favor.

Connecticut’s delegation returned to Washington, D.C., to an uncomfortable but pressing question facing all congressional Democrats: Should President Joe Biden continue seeking office as he tries to weather lingering concerns about his ability to defeat Donald Trump?

In interviews and public statements on Monday, five of the seven members said they are standing behind Biden — some sounding a bit more optimistic, while others offered more muted support. But they also acknowledged that Biden still needs to demonstrate to voters he is up to the task. Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont cautioned that the president “can’t play defense for the next four months.”

In the week and a half since Biden’s troubled debate performance, a growing number of Democrats have expressed private and public criticism about their chances of holding the White House as well as their prospects in Congress. But lawmakers have been largely able to keep their heads down with the week-long holiday recess.

That changed Monday as Democrats in the House and Senate were greeted by crowds of reporters bombarding them with questions about Biden’s fitness for office as the president made a defiant plea to move on from the debate and unite behind him. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Sunday characterized the week as “absolutely critical for Biden to make his case.”

When it comes to the party’s policy and political agenda, Connecticut’s all-Democrat delegation is usually unified, with members occasionally bucking the party and leadership. On this matter, members offered a largely cohesive — and at times cautious — public response. They conceded Biden did not have a great debate but believe it does not diminish the work of the last three years and should not distract from the ultimate goal of beating Trump.

House and Senate Democrats met separately on Tuesday to privately air grievances and discuss the path forward for the party. Preempting those meetings, Biden wrote a letter to lawmakers stating that he is not going anywhere and that the party as a whole should move on from the debate.

It will be the first time Democrats are all in a room discussing the top of the ticket. While most of the delegation is publicly backing Biden, others have privately shared reservations.

In a call on Sunday with committee leaders, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said Biden should leave the race, according to Politico. His office declined to comment on the contents of the call and where he currently stands on Biden. When asked on his way to House votes on Tuesday, Himes said he was not going to discuss his position.

“I think it’s time for everyone to get in a room, express your concerns and then unite,” U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said in a Monday interview. “Republicans united around a guy with a criminal record as long as my arm.”

Larson argued that Biden’s poor debate performance should not negate his character and policies compared to those of Trump. He said he wishes Biden’s more authoritative tone during an interview with NBC News’ “Morning Joe” came through at the debate.

“Everyone wishes Joe Biden had a great debate,” Larson added. “Realistically, I don’t know anyone else running for president than Joe Biden. … I think he’s made it very clear. It’s a decision that’s up to the president.”

When asked if he is confident in Biden’s ability to seek reelection, Larson said he trusts the judgment of his political mentor, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is a friend and adviser to the president. Larson said he has spoken with Dodd since the presidential debate and that Dodd assured him of Biden’s capabilities.

“No one knows Joe Biden in Connecticut better than [Dodd], and he’s absolutely convinced of that,” Larson said.

Murphy, who faces his own reelection race this November, came to Biden’s defense on Sunday while also acknowledging concerns from voters. Speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill, Murphy reiterated much of what he said in that interview, saying the president took “a step in the right direction” with recent campaign and media appearances. And he said he has the opportunity to do that once again as Biden meets with world leaders for this week’s NATO summit in D.C.

“I still believe what I said yesterday. I think Joe Biden can win. I think his best chance of winning is by answering the questions that voters have,” Murphy told reporters on Monday.

“I said yesterday that I think the clock is ticking because I think we have to move on. We’ve got to get this campaign back to a contrast between the recklessness and pathological lying of Donald Trump,” he added.

Other lawmakers in the delegation echoed similar sentiments about Biden as Democratic lawmakers around the country split over how the party should move forward. Even after Biden’s appeal to Congress, some Democrats in the U.S. Senate still shared concerns, urging him to show voters it was “just a bad night.” But he also garnered critical support on Monday including from key progressives as well as lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“Joe Biden has my support, and I believe that he has to make his case more aggressively to the American people about what’s at stake in this election and earn their support,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in an interview.

But others were less talkative about the state of the presidential race — though still supportive.

As she was walking onto the House floor to vote on Monday night, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, briefly said that she supports Biden. When asked follow-up questions by reporters after the vote, she repeated the same sentiment.

“How can I be more plain? I support Joe Biden,” said DeLauro, who was also reportedly on the Sunday call as ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said in a statement that his main goal is preventing Trump from winning the presidency again — notably without mentioning Biden’s name.

“Stopping Donald Trump from regaining the White House — which his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Defense Secretary, National Security Advisor, Vice President, and countless others have said would be a threat to democracy and security — is the top priority in 2024,” Courtney said in a Monday statement. “I will support the most pragmatic and effective path to achieving that goal.”

On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, said she remains supportive of the Biden administration’s agenda. Her comments were similar to ones she made during an interview weeks before the presidential debate.

Hayes, who faces the most competitive reelection race in the state, declined to share what was discussed during the House Democrats’ meeting earlier in the day.

“I support the Biden-Harris agenda. We’ve done tremendous work. I know what’s at risk if that work ends, and I recognize what Donald Trump brings to the ticket. So the positions and the policy have not changed,” Hayes said.

Connecticut Democrats have been a reliable base of support for Biden over the past several years. Lamont was the first governor to endorse him in the crowded 2020 presidential primary. And for the 2024 election, Lamont and Murphy were named to the Biden campaign’s National Advisory Board to effectively serve as campaign surrogates.

Lamont participated virtually in a White House meeting last week with Democratic governors to lock down their support. During that meeting, Lamont indicated Biden would need to assure voters that he is up to the task. As he offered his assessment and concerns on Monday, the governor did not call for Biden to leave the race.

“We can’t play defense for the next four months,” Lamont said on Monday. “We’ve been playing defense for 10 days waiting for the dust to settle. The dust is settling, and we’re still playing defense. And that does not win elections.”

Murphy had also said Sunday he would advise Biden to do a town hall or hold a press conference that “shows the country that he is still the old Joe Biden.”

In the days following the debate, Biden laid low, raising further concerns and the uncertainty of his candidacy. Since then, he has done a few radio and phone interviews, including a recorded sit-down with ABC News that aired Friday. Murphy sounded skeptical that the interview “did enough to answer [voters’] questions” but has since indicated that the president is starting to do more to assuage concerns.

But as lawmakers were returning, Biden sent a Monday letter to congressional Democrats that he is “firmly committed to staying in this race.”

“The question of how to move forward has been well-aired for over a week now. And it’s time for it to end,” Biden wrote. “We have one job. And that is to beat Donald Trump.”

“Any weakening of resolve or lack of clarity about the task ahead only helps Trump and hurts us,” Biden added. “It is time to come together, move forward as a unified party, and defeat Donald Trump.”

Biden sounded more defiant during a Monday phone interview on NBC News’ “Morning Joe.” Responding to critics within the Democratic Party who have publicly and privately called for him to exit the race, the president said they should challenge him at the Democratic National Convention when the party plans to formally nominate him next month in Chicago.

“If any of these guys don’t think I should run, run against me, go ahead — announce for president. Challenge me at the convention,” Biden said.

Even as the party gets jittery over the top of the ticket, Democrats are also venting frustrations about the significant focus on Biden’s mental acuity, pointing to Trump’s repeated falsehoods during the debate as well as his conviction in his hush-money trial. They argue that a Trump victory could lead to more political violence and a hard-right policy agenda.

Connecticut Democrats hope the party can pivot back to draw a contrast between Biden and Trump on key issues like reproductive care.

“What unifies all of us is we want to defeat Donald Trump,” Blumenthal said.

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