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Virginia’s congressional Democrats hedge on Biden 2024

A close up of Sen. Tim Kaine with a white background
Shaban Athuman
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VPM News
Sen. Tim Kaine (D–Va.) tours Reynolds Community College on Monday, July 8, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

One senator had been preparing to ask the president to step aside.

This is a developing story and may be updated.

SUFFOLK — On a recent sweltering Friday evening, Sen. Tim Kaine walked into a room full of local Democratic officialsand supporters to make the case for his re-election — and also to address the growing controversy surrounding President Joe Biden’s future as their nominee.

Before Kaine took the stage, there were mixed opinions offered by the audience on whether Biden’s struggles during the first presidential debate with former President Donald Trump indicated the incumbent wasn’t able to do the job.

“I mean, if you want to hand it to Trump, go right ahead and change,” said Dana Adams, a member of the local Democratic committee. And, she said, Biden was already chosen by voters. “You're going to change it on us? Not smart. Be smart.”

Terry Miller said she would vote for whoever the Democratic nominee is, but thought it was best for Biden to exit the race.

“He is strong enough to make a decision that he will step aside and allow the process of the next nominee to come, whomever that will be,” she said. “But I believe that the Democrats have a very strong bench, and it begins with our vice president.”

After participants — mostly older and evenly split between Black and white — filled plates with aromatic biryani and sticky gulab jamun from a local Indian restaurant, Kaine took the microphone and directly addressed the issue.

“I know people are real concerned about the debate,” said Kaine. “I know that raises a lot of concerns, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.”

Kaine said the concern that Biden is no longer well-suited for another four years in the world’s most powerful and demanding position of power shouldn’t outweigh the record economic growth under Biden’s administration or temper concerns about Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election.

“This guy has earned our respect, including our ability to respect the fact that he's going to make the right decision,” he said. “I don't think he needs a lot of Dems trying to pile on and push them out.”

Hours earlier, The Washington Post reported that Sen. Mark Warner was attempting to gain support from other Senate Democrats in asking Biden to exit the race.

Mark Warner
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
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The Associated Press File
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks during a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, March 8, 2023.

Warner’s staff did not confirm or deny the Post’s report, according to the article. VPM News reached out to Warner's staff, who did not immediately reply for comment.

According to the Post article, a group of senators aimed to meet with the president on Monday night. Reporting on Sunday night said the meeting plans had fallen apart, and by Monday Biden had written blunt letters to congressional leadership saying he was not dropping out.

When VPM News asked Friday if he had spoken with Warner, Kaine said, “We all talk all the time. I am not aware of any meeting or planned meeting between groups of senators and the president.”

Kaine’s answer — neither calling on Biden to exit nor saying he should stay — echoed some other recent statements by Virginia Democrats in Congress.

None have publicly called for a nominee other than Biden. Only a handful of members of the House have nationwide, despite reported panic within the party.

But they have expressed openness to a new nominee, often sandwiched between messages of support for the president.

“In the U.S. political system, the president is seen as the leader of the party. And so, I think many of these congressional Democrats are being very careful, at least publicly,” said Caitlin Jewitt, a professor of political science at Virginia Tech. “They're trying to hedge their bets and make sure that they don't anger the Biden administration too much, would be my guess.”

Last week, Rep. Gerry Connolly, who has represented Virginia’s 11th Congressional District since 2009, said Biden’s debate performance didn’t make Connolly want “ to throw him overboard.”

“Having said that, at the end of the day, we cannot afford to make a mistake about Donald Trump,” Connolly said on CNN. “We’ve got to put our best foot forward. And I’m hopeful that’s Joe Biden. I’m open to the fact that, sadly, it might not be.”

Warner, Kaine and Connolly come to Biden and the presidential race with different perspectives. Warner is the head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Kaine ran for vice president on a losing national ticket in 2016 against Trump. And Connolly said he has known Biden for 45 years — and wrote speeches for him.

“I think he was discharging his responsibility as a leader in the state and in the Senate,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, while discussing Warner. “I assume he felt very strongly that he needed to have other leaders come together and talk to the president and see what could be done.”

Rep. Don Beyer, another Northern Virginia congressman, posted on social media Sunday night that he “supports Biden.”

“I support the Biden-Harris ticket, and look forward to helping defeat Donald Trump in November,” he wrote. “I was proud to host an event this week in Northern Virginia with the President, and will continue doing all I can to support the Biden-Harris campaign in Virginia and across the country."

The post came after reporters from Punchbowl News said that Beyer told a call of congressional leaders that he preferred Harris to run. Beyer’s staff denied the report, and other stories reporting on the same meeting did not include Beyer in a list of Democrats who wanted to change the party's nomination plans.

“Party elites can call for him to step aside all they want, but the delegates at this point can't change what is going to transpire on their own,” said Jewitt, the Tech professor.

Rep. Jennifer McClellan told MSNBC the day after the debate that Biden at the top of the ticket with Harris as vice president was “the only path forward.”

Congresspeople Spanberger and McClellan chat as people hold up signs
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
Rep Abigail Spanberger chats with Rep. Jennifer McClellan as they join other Virginia Democrats to mark two years since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization court ruling on Monday, June 24, 2024 at Church Hill Overlook in Richmond, Virginia.

“I think one debate performance does not negate three years of the most consequential presidency in my memory,” she said.

McClellan also told VPM News on Monday in an emailed statement that she “will work every day to support Joe Biden, our party’s nominee, and do the work necessary to win in November.”

VPM News also reached out to the campaigns of Rep. Abigail Spanberger (who is likely to be the Democratic nominee for governor in 2025), and Rep. Bobby Scott, Virginia’s longest-serving member of Congress, but did not hear back by deadline.

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.
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