Some Biden donors want their money back after debate disaster

That was one of many questions top Democratic donors have posed to campaign staffers in recent days, according to Reuters. Since President Joe Biden’s widely derided debate performance last week, anxiety has swelled among the donor class over his ability to defeat former President Donald Trump in a tight race. 

Senior campaign officials quickly organized calls with donors on Sunday and Monday to quell their concerns, NBC reported. One of these calls grew tense when a donor asked about the possible refund. 

Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez replied that Biden plans to keep running, according to NBC. When pressed further, she said the campaign war chest – about $91 million – would go to Vice President Kamala Harris if the president dropped out.

During a Monday call with about 500 members of the National Finance Committee, Chris Korge, the committee’s finance chair, implored donors to just “breathe through the nose for a minute.” Though Biden’s campaign chair, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, conceded on the call that Thursday’s debate was rough for the president, she emphasized its relatively low impact on voters’ confidence. A Five-Thirty-Eight and Ipsos poll found that while voters criticized Biden’s performance, the debate barely dented support among his core constituencies. 

‘Ridiculous manipulation and denial’

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, dubbed by some the “CEO whisperer,” was one of the business leaders on Monday’s call. He told Fortune he was “discouraged and insulted” by the call, which he said resembled a pep rally filled with “platitudes.” There was no public chat function, and questions that were typed into the forum seemed to go nowhere, he said. Within 15 minutes, 50 business leaders dropped from the call; 40 minutes in, 100 had left, feeling “disgusted” by the Biden campaign’s unwillingness to directly address the debate, Sonnenfeld added.

“It was ridiculous manipulation and denial,” Sonnenfeld told Fortune, adding that he still plans to vote for Biden. Among business leadership, faith in Biden’s campaign has been severely damaged, and there is now increasing pressure for an open convention that would allow another person to become the party’s presidential nominee, Sonnenfeld added. If there is no radical change this week, he believes tensions will begin boiling over among donors.

Privately, Democratic financiers have been ceaselessly Signal messaging and conference calling with their networks, wondering if their investments will be wasted, the New York Times reported. One Silicon Valley donor canceled an intimate fundraiser due to the debate, while another told NBC that if Biden stays in the race, they will redirect their money to outside get-out-the-vote groups.

“I won’t sit on the sidelines, but it’s hard and getting a lot harder to donate directly to the campaign given their judgment,” the donor said, calling the devotion to Biden “Trumpian.”

Other donors have stood by Biden. Craig Kaplan, a prominent Democratic fundraiser in New York, told Fortune that while donors initially panicked over Biden’s performance, they are now understanding that “it’s not October.” With several months to go until the election, Biden has ample opportunity to prove that he is the Democrats’ best option, Kaplan said. Plus, a perceived weakness at the presidential level heightens the importance of down-ballot races, he said, explaining that, if Trump were to win, a Democratic House could prevent the worst of Trump’s policies. 

“I think some of the donors think [Biden’s chance at winning] is gone, but when you have the conversation with them about the heightened importance of the other races, the panic recedes,” Kaplan said. 

He also added that Biden doesn’t necessarily need the donors: he has enough money already. And, as a working-class kid who grew up with “no silver spoon,” Biden isn’t the type to be easily influenced by wealthy donors, Kaplan claimed. 

While Biden entered the race with a sizable cash lead over his opponent, Trump has out-raised Biden to date ($232 million to $212 million, according to OpenSecrets). Money is an important predictor of a campaign’s power, but as Trump’s surprise election in 2016 showed, the best-funded campaign doesn’t always win. 

Representatives from the Biden campaign did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

‘Boosting their old man’

Still, some donors have taken it upon themselves to comfort their Democratic peers.

Dmitri Mehlhorn, a Democratic strategist and fundraiser who works closely with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, told Fortune that the two were still supportive of Joe Biden.

“There have been many times in the last eight years when we have disagreed with the consensus of other Democratic donors,” Mehlhorn said. “And this is one of those times. Joe Biden is still—for all of his faults—the most likely person to defeat Donald Trump in the fall.”

Hoffman, who has been called the Silicon Valley Democrats’ leader, wrote in an email to friends that “Joe Biden is our nominee; period,” according to CNN. He said it would be a mistake to pressure Biden to step down since it might harden the president’s resolve to prove himself by staying in the race. 

He also contrasted the Democrats’ current panic with Republicans’ increasing support of Trump, even when he was convicted of 34 felony counts during May’s hush money trial. 

“They ruthlessly and immediately closed ranks,” Hoffman wrote, “because they understand that at this stage of the race, they must spend every minute and dime either boosting their old man, or tearing down ours.”

Much of the concern over replacing Biden stems from fears that it’s too late—and too risky—to support a candidate untested on the national stage. Plus, Biden, as an incumbent, could have a better chance of appealing to voters who seek stability. Others believe that Biden is fine, and just had one bad night. 

Another Democratic donor, Michael Kempner, could be placed into that last camp. In a recent Instagram post, he signaled his support for the president. 

“I just saw President Biden. Relax every one, he was on his game,” the Kempner posted on Instagram following an event in the Hamptons hosted by the hedge fund mogul Barry Rosenstein. 

Rosenstein told CNN that the event was a success and part of a two-day campaign swing through New York that brought in more than $27 million. However, CNN reported that the environment during one of the events—a gala Friday night headlined by Elton John—was strained. 

“The vibe in the room was completely bizarre,” a Democratic strategist who attended the event told CNN. “You’re having fun and the drinks are flowing, and Elton John was there — but you’re waiting for the gaffe, you’re waiting for the slip — magnified by the terror of the night before.”

Yet another donor in that room, Charles Myers, told CNN that the negative narrative was false. 

“Yes, donors were nervous after the very bad debate performance,” Myers said, “but still very much on board and some want to do more.” 

Sonnenfeld agrees, telling Fortune of a conversation he had with a CEO of a prominent finance company. “I’ll vote for Joe Biden as long as he has a pulse,” the CEO said, according to Sonnenfeld. “And maybe if he doesn’t.”

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Some Biden donors want their money back after debate disaster:

That was one of many questions top Democratic donors have posed to campaign staffers in recent d…