Democrats express alarm over debate's negative tone

Democratic lawmakers were left shaken and worried by Wednesday night’s bruising presidential debate, which left some fearing the fight will hurt the party and result in a damaged nominee.

Senate Democrats are frustrated that candidates are spending too much time and effort attacking each other for relatively small policy differences, while not focusing their ire on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE.

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They worry the intraparty food fight is overshadowing what they see as the main goal: Drawing a clear contrast between the Democratic candidates and Trump on health care and other key issues.

“I’m of the view that we have always been a party of ideas,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGiffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick Senate confirms Trump pick labeled 'not qualified' by American Bar Association Feinstein endorses Christy Smith for Katie Hill's former House seat MORE (Calif.). “I think everybody should sort of consider that.”

She said there is “concern” within the caucus of the increasingly vicious attacks, particularly against the front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump to hold campaign rally in Michigan Castro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Buttigieg draws fresh scrutiny, attacks in sprint to Iowa MORE.

“People take sides and then they become hypersensitive and that just makes divisions all over the party and we don’t want that,” she said. “I want every one of our candidates to do well.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Trump administration releases 5M in military aid for Lebanon after months-long delay Senate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters MORE (D-Conn.) blamed the debate moderators for much of the negativity.

“I think these debates are really silly,” he said. “Just the incessant focus on these relative minor divisions between candidates might make for good TV but I don’t think gives people an accurate portrayal of the stakes of this election.”

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP MORE (N.Y.) also voiced concern about the tone of the debates, in what could have been a signal to the candidates.

“No circular firing squads,” he said during an interview Thursday with SiriusXM’s Joe Madison.

Schumer focused on the infighting over health care.

“If we get all focused on the differences between, say Bernie [Sanders] and Cory [Booker] and Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] and [John] Hickenlooper, we’ll lose sight of the fact that it’s Donald Trump who’s now trying to reduce health care, destroy health care, get it rid for everybody,” Schumer said, adding, “That’s a trap we shouldn’t fall into.”

Both the Tuesday and Wednesday night debates featured arguments between Democratic candidates, but the second night was much more personal, with Biden coming under fire for the crime bill he authored in the 1990s and an op-ed he wrote in 1981.

Harris came under fire from Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardCastro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Saagar Enjeti ponders Hillary Clinton's 2020 plans The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi says House will move forward with impeachment MORE (D-Hawaii), who attacked her record as a prosecutor and attorney general.

Gabbard accused Harris of blocking evidence “that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so” and keeping convicts “in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinNo one wins with pro-abortion litmus test Senate confirms Brouillette to replace Perry as Energy secretary Political purity tests are for losers MORE (D-W.Va.) called the attacks hurled back and forth among the presidential hopefuls “awful.”

“It’s not who I am, it’s not what I believe in, I don’t think it helps anybody — to attack each other and try to annihilate each other,” he said. “It’s just awful. The whole scenario is bad.”

“Run for something, don’t run against something,” he added.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHarris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Warren hits Bloomberg, Steyer: They have 'been allowed to buy their way' into 2020 race Supreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade MORE (D-N.Y.) accused Biden of being opposed to women in the workplace based on a 1981 op-ed he wrote.

“What did you mean when you said when a woman works outside the home, it’s resulting in ‘the deterioration of family?'” Gillibrand said, challenging Biden’s decades-old opposition to a bill that would have expanded the child tax credit to richer couples.

Biden defended himself by insisting that he wanted the economic aid to go to families earning less than $100,000.

Biden came under attack from Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCastro hits fundraising threshold for December debate The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi says House will move forward with impeachment Booker: Primary voters 'being denied' their candidates of choice MORE (D-N.J.) for his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill, which critics said fueled mass incarceration across the United States.

“There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” Booker said during the debate.

Biden for his part criticized Booker’s crime-fighting record as Newark mayor and his use of controversial stop-and-frisk policing tactics.  

The battling could feel personal in the Senate, since so many of the people on stage are senators or former senators. Harris, Booker, Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump to hold campaign rally in Michigan Castro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Buttigieg: Harris 'deserves to be under anybody's consideration' for vice president MORE (Mass.)  Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSenators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Democrats hit gas on impeachment MORE (Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharCastro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Klobuchar lauds power of free press in post about her father The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi says House will move forward with impeachment MORE (Minn.) are the Senate contenders for the White House. Biden served in the Senate for more than three decades.

Feinstein said colleagues are concerned that the candidates are pulling out the long knives six months before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses. That leaves plenty of time for resentments and factions to become fixed.

“This is so unusual because it’s so far ahead of an election,” she said, noting that attack ads are often reserved for the final weeks of a campaign.

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellHillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware Senators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Senators inch forward on federal privacy bill MORE (D-Wash.) said she wanted to hear more discussion about the candidates' plans for boosting the economy and creating jobs.

“I definitely want them to be more focused on job creation,” she said. “I thought there was more that could be said about our economic strategy.”

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSupreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade Protecting the future of student data privacy: The time to act is now Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (Ill.) said he’s concerned the party infighting over health care obscures what he sees as the more important topic of the 2020 election: the difference between Trump and the Democrats.

“I think we’re digging into this whole Medicare debate in such detail that we’re missing the obvious. What this president is trying to do with existing health care should be the issue,” he said.

“Getting lost in the minutia of this, I think, confuses voters and is a waste of time,” Durbin said of the Democrat-on-Democrat attacks on competing health care ideas.

Nathanial Weixel contributed.