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Why Democrat Dean Phillips is considered a safe bet to win Minnesota’s formerly solid Republican Third District

The Third District went over to Democrats in the 2018 election wave. It looks set to stay that way.

Rep. Dean Phillips speaking during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on September 16.
Rep. Dean Phillips speaking during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on September 16.
Stefani Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

In Minnesota’s Third District, the Minnesota Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Kendall Qualls.

Standing outside of the Peace Officers Memorial at the Minnesota State Capitol, Qualls, Rep. Dean Phillips’ Republican opponent, said the difference between him and his opponent is night and day.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “There is a clear difference between me and Dean Phillips on support for law enforcement.”

But there’s a problem with that argument: While Qualls is endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, Phillips is endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the largest police union in Minnesota.

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The split endorsement between the police organizations, uncharacteristic of the other congressional races around the state, is indicative of the contest in the Third: As Qualls leans heavily on familiar national Republican themes, like support for “law-and-order,” demonizing socialism and supporting President Donald Trump, Phillips’ campaign — and his record after one term in Congress — emphasize bipartisan cooperation and finding compromises. In this well-off, suburban district that was until very recently represented by a moderate Republican, Phillips’ message seems to resonate.

‘Fiscally responsible and socially progressive’

The Third District, which covers suburban portions of the Twin Cities in Hennepin, Carver, and Anoka counties, is only recently represented by a Democrat. From 2009 to 2019, the area was represented by Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican. In fact, until Paulsen was ousted, the district was reliably Republican from 1961 on. But caught up in the Democratic wave of 2018, demographic changes in the suburbs, and political realignment, Paulsen, a long-time politician and former state legislator, was defeated by Phillips.

Phillips didn’t come from politics. He’s a graduate of Brown University with a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota. When he was young, his father was killed in Vietnam. His mother remarried to the Minneapolis family who introduced schnaps to the U.S: The Phillips.

As the heir to the Phillips’ distilling fortune, Phillips invested in a then little-known gelato company, Talenti, which was eventually sold to multi-national corporation Unilever. He’s also found success with a string of coffee shops, Penny’s Coffee, around Minneapolis. Phillips, who lives in Deephaven, has two daughters, and remarried during his time in Congress.

Kendall Qualls
Qualls for Congress
Kendall Qualls
As a legislator, Phillips describes himself as “fiscally responsible and socially progressive,” or, as he put another way,  “I represent the district well with a progressive heart, a pragmatic head, a business background.”

Phillips, who votes with Democrats a majority of the time, often finds ways to emphasize his bipartisanship in Congress. He works with Rep. Pete Stauber, the Republican from upstate, in the bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus. And he’s worked to find middle-ground solutions between the parties, most recently taking an active role in writing a compromise COVID-19 stimulus bill with some of his Republican colleagues. (The bill was not voted on.)

“My representation is modeled on some of my Republican predecessors such as Bill Frenzel and Jim Ramstad as much as Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone,” he said.

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To Phillips, most issues are not just Republican or Democratic, even if they are often used that way. He pointed to masks as an example: “This notion of every issue being binary and that if one party stands for something, then the other feels it must be opposed to it [doesn’t make sense],” he said. “Masks. It’s a perfect example of the risks to human life and to economic life in America by these political divisions. Masks should have been something on which every American agreed. And in which each American participated from day one, because if we had done so, we would have been able to better maintain our economy without as much disruption.”

Outside of his support from the statewide police union, Phillips has the endorsement of the National Chamber of Commerce. He also has the endorsement of many of Minnesota’s major unions, as well as environmental groups like Boundary Waters Action Fund.

He sees his representation in Congress as well suited to his district. As part of a wave of Democratic representative who flipped suburban districts in 2018 and helped Democrats take back the House, Phillips said that much of the legislation passed by that chamber in the last two years is built for districts like his. “The agenda that we developed was very much designed for suburban America. And, you know, we were the majority makers, people like Angie Craig and me and so many of the freshmen Democrats that came to Washington. We worked very hard to ensure that  the general agenda for the 116th Congress would be one design for as many Americans as possible and particularly for suburban America.”

A Republican challenger

Like Phillips, Qualls doesn’t come from politics either.

When Qualls was five, his father returned from Vietnam and divorced his mother. From then on, he was one of five children raised by his mom in Harlem. Eventually he moved to Oklahoma to live with his father, a U.S. Army Drill sergeant, who lived in a small trailer.

After college, he joined the army at 19, eventually going on to be responsible for tactical nuclear weapons and serving a tour in South Korea.

“If the roles were reversed, if I was a Democrat and my opponent was a rich country club Republican, if he was on the R side and he was on the D side, this story would have national attention,” Qualls said.

His life in Minnesota (he lives in Medina) has focused on family and work. Qualls is married with five children and a Labrador Retriever named Largo and initially worked in sales and marketing for major companies, then in the pharmaceutical and medical technology field. He is currently Vice President for PotentiaMetrics, a startup company that uses artificial intelligence to help patients with cancer.

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Many of Qualls’ complaints about Phillips mirror national Republican talking points about Democratic party lawmakers. Qualls’ endorsements are primarily from major Republican and conservative groups and politicians: former Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Senator Tim Scott, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, and Freedom Club.

As for why voters should choose him over Phillips, Qualls says the choice in the race is between the Republican Party or socialism. “Right now, are we going to open up our country and really allow us to take advantage of a fully free market capitalist country? Or do we believe that socialism is a better way to go?”

He adds that there are two other “macro reasons” said he’s a better fit for the district: one, he thinks that he’s a better example for young people who don’t think the country is “a force for good” abroad; and two, he doesn’t believe in systemic racism.

“This narrative of we are a systemically racist country and then that’s it. And I totally reject that concept. And then if you believe in it, it’s coming from academia and the 1619 Project [referring to a series of articles in the New York Times] being kind of like the underlying foundation behind it. That’s absolutely incorrect. And he adopts that,” he said of Phillips.

Phillips, who believes that law enforcement in his district is a model for the rest of the country, said he believes many people in his district, Democrats and Republicans, have done some “soul searching” over the last few months.

“I’m surprised that his argument is, ‘We do not have elements of systemic racism in the United States’ because the people who I listen to and visit with regularly in our district and beyond have very different stories to tell than my opponent, and it’s my responsibility to listen to everybody,” Phillips said.

Outside of discussing systemic racism, when it comes to the Congressional race between him and Qualls, Phillips contends that there hasn’t been much substance. “I’m saddened that this campaign has not been one run on issues or debate of policy,” he said. “My opponent seems to be more interested in running against Ilhan Omar and AOC [New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and others.”

Qualls said, when it comes to local policy, he would be a better fit for both public safety (he says Phillips did not do enough to disavow rioting in Minneapolis) and healthcare (he says his experience in the field is important). Qualls also charged Phillips as a supporter of Medicare-for-all (Phillips has not supported any Medicare-for-all plan).

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“He got a failing grade from the National Federation of Independent Businesses. These people they’ve been the voice of small business for 75 years. They gave him a 33 percent rating out of a hundred. Guess who else got a 33 percent?” Qualls asked rhetorically. “Ilhan Omar.”

Safely Democratic

Three of the largest non-partisan evaluators of Congressional races, The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, don’t see the district as likely to flip: rating it an either Solidly or Safely Democratic seat. And unlike in 2018, when Phillips defeated Paulsen, there has been little focus on the district and no outside polling.

For Phillips, it’s not about a particular message other than bringing people together. “I think there’s an opportunity for candidates in both parties to better recognize that real representation isn’t just 51 percent of a district,” Phillips said. “It’s everybody.”

If he loses, Qualls believes it’s just because he hasn’t talked to enough people. Hasn’t gotten his message in front of enough swing voters.

And, he said if that were to happen, he is being encouraged to run again. “If I wind up losing,” he said, “it’s because I did not get out to enough people for them to hear the message.”