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As Dean Phillips pursues White House, two very different Democrats vie for his job in Congress

Ron Harris and Kelly Morrison have largely refrained from attacking Phillips, who hasn’t said whether he will run for reelection in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District.

Rep. Dean Phillips
REUTERS/Reba Saldanha

WASHINGTON – Rep. Dean Phillips had been considered a shoo-in for reelection to represent a suburban Twin Cities district in Congress. Not anymore.

His primary challenge to President Joe Biden has roiled some DFLers in that district who voted for Biden over former President Donald Trump by more than 19 percentage points. And it has left the party unsure of how they can best hold on to the seat in a year in which Democrats hope to regain control of the U.S. House.   

Phillips is campaigning for the White House in New Hampshire and South Carolina and hasn’t said whether he’ll run for reelection in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes suburbs such as Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Bloomington and Brooklyn Park. Meanwhile, two Democrats have emerged to try to replace him. 

One of the candidates for the seat, Ron Harris, is a 34-year-old political activist who has never been in elected office before but knows plenty about politics.

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He said he was inspired by “The Audacity of Hope,” the 2006 book former President Obama wrote before he was elected to the White House. Harris decided to make a career of public service while attending Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia. 

Harris worked on Al Franken’s Senate campaign, has been a member of the Democratic National Committee for seven years, and served as the chief resilience officer for three years throughout the pandemic and when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Ron Harris
Ron Harris
He entered the race just before Phillips made his official announcement of his candidacy for the White House.

“I am running because I think our community needs strong and effective leadership,” Harris said in an interview with MinnPost. 

A Biden loyalist, it’s somewhat ironic that Harris echoes Phillips’ call for younger  leadership. Harris said it’s time for millennials to take their turn at “finding out what’s broken in our society.”

But unlike Phillips, 54, who said he is running for president because he thinks Biden is too old for the job, Harris said American politics needs dedicated people of all ages. 

“Biden has been the only one to beat Donald Trump,” Harris said. “And the threat of Trump is so massive we need to support the person who beat Donald Trump.”

Harris has recently released a digital campaign ad that introduces himself as the son of a single mother who raised him in Coon Rapids. His mother struggled financially when she lost her job because she stayed home to take care of Harris when, as a child, he became gravely ill.

“The biggest lesson she taught me was resilience,” Harris says of his mother in the ad.

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Harris is running on an economic message, promising help for working families,  judicial reforms and efforts to fight “apathy and cynicism” in the political sphere.

“Growing up in that system, I know who this country is built for and who it is not for,” Harris said. 

Meanwhile, state Sen. Kelly Morrison, 54, plans to run for the 3rd Congressional District seat with a different background and focus. 

She is an ob-gyn who has promoted greater access to health care in the state Legislature and wants to champion that issue as well as abortion rights in Congress. The GOP’s fight against abortion rights continues to lift Democratic candidates.

Morrison, who lives in Deephaven, also said she wants to focus on the environment and climate change.  

“I want to take some of the issues I’m really passionate about to the national level,” Morrison said in an interview with MinnPost.  

She said Donald Trump’s triumph in 2016, which resulted in her having to put her three children in bed in tears on election night, turned her attention from medicine to politics.

Morrison, the same age as Phillips, was in his class at the Blake School, a private preparatory high school in Minneapolis.

“He was exactly the same guy he is today,” she said.

Morrison went on to Yale University for her undergraduate studies and completed her medical studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. 

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Leaving DFLers ‘high and dry’

Morrison is collecting a roster of endorsements from her colleagues in the state Legislature – and has been endorsed by former Gov. Mark Dayton.

Kelly Morrison
Kelly Morrison
She ran for the state House in 2018 and won. Then, in 2022, Morrison ran for the state Senate and won.

She said her state House victory in a “purple” district and her state Senate victory in a more Democratic district is good preparation for a run in the 3rd Congressional District, which had been solid GOP territory for more than half a century before Phillips defeated Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, a moderate, in 2018. The district has been comfortably Democratic ever since.

Still, a moderate Republican with enough financial backing could win the district, said David Schultz, professor of law and political science at Hamline University.

Schultz said DFLers in the district are facing a “Catch 22.” If they criticize Phillips for challenging Biden, they could weaken a candidate who has been very popular in the 3rd District and help a GOP challenger.

But if they wait for Phillips to make up his mind about seeking reelection, the DFL could lose valuable time they need to promote a strong candidate who could keep the district in Democratic hands, Schultz said.

“If they had waited, they could be left high and dry,” Schultz said.

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So, the fact that Harris and Morrison have begun their campaigns – and have largely refrained from attacking Phillips – and that there are other DFLers who may enter the race helps the prospect of keeping the seat in Democratic hands. So far, the only Republican to enter the race is Blaize Harty.  

And there’s no guarantee Phillips would win a 3rd District primary race, which would be held in August of next year.

“He’s ticked (constituents) off enough that he’s in danger,” Schultz said. 

Morrison said she is focusing on her race for Congress and any talk of what Phillips will do is speculative.

“Dean Phillips is running for president, I’m running for Congress,” she said.

Still, when asked if she thought Phillips would run for reelection – a decision he could make anytime before June’s candidate filing deadline – Morrison said: “I don’t see that happening.”

“There’s technically time for him to run and lose in the early stages of the presidential primary and still run for reelection,” said Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections. “But a reelection bid would certainly be clouded by how the presidential race plays out.”

Gonzales said “if there’s a prevailing narrative that Phillips’ primary challenge is weakening Biden’s ability to defeat Trump, then the congressman will have a tough time keeping support back home.”

To Gonzales, Morrison’s entry into the 3rd District race “is either an indication that she doesn’t think Phillips will run again or that he’s extremely vulnerable.”

“It’s easy to see how some Democrats in his district would be frustrated by his moves to challenge President Biden, but there just isn’t a lot of quantitative data to prove or disprove that,” Gonzalez said.