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Major Democratic donors are asking: What to do with Biden?

The Democratic Party’s perpetually nervous donor class was thrown into deep turmoil on Friday, as some of the wealthiest people in America commiserated over President Biden’s lackluster debate performance and wondered what, if anything, they could do to change the course of the race.

There were discussions with political advisers about arcane rules under which Mr. Biden could be removed from the ticket against his will and replaced at or before the Democratic National Convention, according to a person familiar with the effort.

In Silicon Valley, a group of megadonors, including Ron Conway and Laurene Powell Jobs, called, texted and emailed each other about a situation they described as a potential catastrophe. The donors wondered who they could contact within the Biden group to reach Jill Biden, the first lady, who could in turn convince her husband not to run, according to a person familiar with the conversations .

A Silicon Valley donor who planned to host an intimate fundraiser with Mr. Biden this summer decided to cancel the meeting because of the debate, according to a person briefed directly by the potential host. Another major donor from California left a debate viewing party early and sent an email to a friend with the subject line: “Total disaster,” according to a copy of the email.

In group chats and hushed discussions, some wealthy Democrats floated interventions, others hoped Mr. Biden would have an epiphany and decide to leave on his own, and even more strategized to steer dollars to downvote candidates. The most optimistic donors wanted to wait for the polls to see the extent of the impact.

The Crisis in the Donor Class — outlined in interviews with nearly two dozen donors and fundraisers, many of whom wished to remain anonymous to discuss their private conversations — couldn’t come at a worse time for Mr. Biden. Former President Donald J. Trump has outpaced him in the past two months, erasing the president’s once-yawning financial advantage and creating one of his own.

By Friday night, many donors had become aware of the unlikelihood of finding a viable alternative, even as some acknowledged waning enthusiasm and grumbled about the Biden team’s lack of communication with major fundraisers in the 24 hours after the debate.

Compared to small online donors, big donors require more maintenance, but those personal relationships can pay big dividends at crucial moments, like Mr. Biden’s as he faces a wave of concern from Democrats about his political strength. The donor class is being closely watched to see if it can weather the doubts.

While the Biden campaign briefed some members of its national finance committee in Atlanta on Friday morning, other members were dismayed that they had received almost no outreach from campaign headquarters.

Reid Hoffman, one of the Democratic Party’s most influential donors, wrote in an email to friends Friday night that he was overwhelmed.

“I have received many emails over the past 24 hours asking whether there should be a public campaign to pressure President Biden to step aside after his (very) poor debate performance last night,” he wrote in the email mail, which was seen by The New York Times. “It certainly hit the mood among donors and organizers.”

Cash is suddenly a priority for Biden’s campaign.

After pulling out a $100 million lead over Trump a few months ago, the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee entered June with $212 million in the bank, compared to $235 million for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Biden’s campaign had hoped to close the gap with a major fundraising drive in the 72 hours after the debate. The battle coincided with the usually lucrative end of the second quarter filing period, when campaigns rush to raise money and project momentum.

Biden’s team planned a series of fundraisers on Friday and over the weekend with the president and first lady, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and celebrities from wealthy enclaves including Manhattan, the Hamptons and Park City, Utah.

In any case, the shaky debate performance cast a shadow over these events and led to concerns about reduced returns.

Biden’s campaign has pushed back against financial concerns, announcing that it had raised $14 million in online donations from Thursday through Friday morning, typically smaller than those from major donors. The hour after the debate — from 11 p.m. to midnight — was the best hour of Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign, the campaign said.

The grumbling and strategizing by major donors played out in a series of conference calls, text debates and Signal chats that began shortly after Biden opened his mouth on stage in Atlanta on Thursday evening and continued late into Friday. Some described the communication in tones that resembled a virtual group therapy session.

“This is an immediate response to disappointment,” said Craig Kaplan, a lawyer and major Democratic donor in New York.

During a weekly Zoom call Friday morning with major donors from New York, Mr. Kaplan urged participants to prioritize donations to congressional and state elections.

“The importance of the lower ballot boxes is magnified,” he said in an interview, by the perception of weakness at the top of the ballot, adding that he had no intention of abandoning Mr. Biden.

Stephen Cozen, a Democratic donor who considers the president a friend, said he had tried to talk down donors who pushed for a Biden intervention.

“He deserves a chance to reflect and say, ‘I still think I can do this. I still think I’m the best choice,’” or to conclude that he’s not the best option, Mr. Cozen said, telling his attorney. “That’s his decision. And I’m going to stand by him until he makes it.”

In the upper echelons of democratic society there was a gap between public and private communication.

Publicly, few were willing to tolerate any criticism of the president.

But privately, major donors were mulling over what seemed like fan fiction a few days ago, wondering which party leader — Barack Obama? Nancy Pelosi? Chuck Schumer? — might have the political juice to convince Mr. Biden to step down.

And they debated which Democrat would be best to replace Mr. Biden, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Gavin Newsom of California among the more popular candidates.

Some donors believed that the importance of the debate had been exaggerated.

“He performed poorly,” said Robert Wolf, the former chairman of UBS Americas, “but a 90-minute debate doesn’t make up for 3.5 years of his presidency, so I’ll fight for Biden there.”

Chris Korge, the finance chairman of the Biden Victory Fund, said: “Now is the time to put our heads down and fight as hard as we can,” he added: “Donors will never give up on Biden.”

Mr. Hoffman, de facto leader of the Silicon Valley Democrats, said he believed it was a mistake to pressure Mr. Biden, in part because it wouldn’t work. “Joe is our nominee; any decision to step aside is up to him and his family, period,” he wrote. “If anything, a public effort could force the Bidens to try to prove the doubters wrong.”

Biden fundraisers heard from a lot of people—one received a Facebook message from a business school friend he hadn’t heard from in more than a decade—but very little from the campaign itself. Around noon on Thursday, members of the Biden Financial Brain Trust descended on Atlanta for what was expected to be a farewell event, the summer meeting of the hundreds-member National Finance Commission.

Fundraisers at the Atlanta Ritz-Carlton were treated to presentations on campaign tactics and issues, according to materials distributed to donors in advance, plus a debrief of the debate. But many members of the finance committee – who were on holiday, deterred by the inability to attend the public-free debate or being unable to attend at short notice – skipped the meeting altogether.

Meanwhile, the president and first lady tried to convince donors that everything was normal.

On Friday afternoon, Jill Biden was in New York for a reception titled “Writers, Wit and Wisdom,” while Ms. Harris was in Park City for her own expensive event. Mark Gilbert, a Democratic fundraiser who hosted her in Park City, said the debate had not dampened enthusiasm.

“Not only were there no cancellations, we also received numerous calls asking if it was too late to attend,” Mr Gilbert said.

Mr. Biden himself appeared in Manhattan on Friday with Elton John at the Stonewall Inn, followed by an LGBTQ-focused fundraiser at Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom. On Saturday he was scheduled to travel to the Hamptons for an event at the home of billionaire Barry Rosenstein, who said he was preparing for more than 200 attendees, more than double his expectations. Later on Saturday, Mr Biden was expected to attend a fundraiser at the home of Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey.

Biden’s Pride Month fundraiser is packed with cameos from celebrities and people with ties to the LGBTQ movement, including a garden party in Los Angeles on Saturday featuring a performance by Idina Menzel.

Still, Friday ended with no clear sense of what donors could do for Mr. Biden. The best some could muster was gallows humor — a meme, a GIF or the sentiment that things could always be worse.

“No one is giving up,” said Steve Phillips, a prominent Democratic donor in California. “Everyone has resigned themselves to the situation.”

Lauren Hirsch, Liam Stack And Olivia Bensimon contributed report.

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