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‘Let Dean be Dean’? Muted reaction from Minnesota Biden backers as Phillips looks to make a splash in New Hampshire

Some Minnesota DFLers, who are all loyal to Biden, are privately fuming at Phillips, but few are doing so publicly.

Rep. Dean Phillips on Friday officially kicked off his presidential bid in Concord, New Hampshire.
Rep. Dean Phillips on Friday officially kicked off his presidential bid in Concord, New Hampshire.
REUTERS/Reba Saldanha

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips on Friday officially kicked off his presidential bid in Concord, New Hampshire, yet his challenge to President Joe Biden has not provoked much concern among Minnesota DFLers – at least not publicly.

After filing to have his name on the ballot, Phillips held a rally Friday, saying his campaign would focus on the economy, crime and “generational change,” the shifting of political power toward younger people.

A self-described optimist, Phillips painted a grim picture of Biden’s America.

“A majority of our neighbors live paycheck to paycheck … unable to get ahead and save for their dreams,” Phillips said. “Life is simply unaffordable. It is simply unaffordable.”

Phillips also said “chaos at our border and in our cities is growing, while our commitment to countering it is receding.”

But he voiced Democratic priorities too.

“Corporations and the wealthy – including me – enjoy more favorable tax treatment than working families,” Phillips said. “Too many of our children are hungry and too many of our veterans homeless. Anger and violence are rising.”

Some Minnesota DFLers, who are all loyal to Biden, are privately fuming at Phillips. But publicly, there’s a “let Dean be Dean” attitude about the centrist Democrat’s attack on his party’s leader.

When asked Thursday by reporters if Phillips’ candidacy would damage the president, who may face a rematch with Donald Trump, Gov. Tim Walz was clear and succinct: “No,” he said. 

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Walz also said Phillips’ challenge to Biden “is just not relevant to the conversation.”

“He’s not gonna be the nominee,” Walz said. “We have our nominee. The president is delivering.”

Yet Phillips plans to continue his campaign through the other early primary states of South Carolina and Michigan, Phillips campaign adviser Steve Schmidt told reporters in New Hampshire. Schmidt helped run former Sen. John McCain’s presidential race.

Phillips, however, failed to make the ballot in Nevada, the second presidential nominating state.

He has said his last-minute campaign is a “desperation effort” to prevent Trump from winning the White House again, because Phillips is concerned Biden can’t defeat him.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, said earlier this week “our party is not happy,” with Phillips’ decision to run for president.

“People are disappointed,” McCollum said. “But it’s a free country.” 

McCollum said Phillips’ constituents should not object that their representative in Congress has higher political ambitions if he continues to cast key votes in the House of Representatives and his staff continues to handle constituent concerns.

DFL activists in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District were largely unresponsive to requests to discuss Phillip’s presidential run.

“I am not commenting on any political matters right now,” replied Ben Hackett, DFL outreach officer for the district, to an emailed request for comment.

Yet one prominent DFLer who is among Phillips’ constituents, state Sen. Bonnie Westlin of Plymouth did go on the offensive against Phillips this week on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, calling on him to resign from his congressional seat.

“I could not be more disappointed in you,” Westlin wrote. “You will never have my support again for any elected office, including your congressional seat.”

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Westlin also attacked the Phillips campaign slogan, emblazoned on the presidential campaign bus that rode into New Hampshire and an echo of “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s rallying cry. 

“Make America Affordable Again. Pretty rich coming from a multi-millionaire,” Westlin said.

Phillips, 54, is a successful businessman and heir to the Phillips Distillery fortune. He is serving in his third term in Congress and had never held political office before. His focus on the cost of inflation on everyday Americans, and the insinuation that Biden is to blame, mirror GOP attacks on the president.

Westlin declined to be interviewed about her views on Phillips. She provided a statement instead that praised Biden for his accomplishments, providing “debt relief for working families … reversing the impact of climate change and lowering prescription drug costs.”

“With so much on the line in 2024, including abortion rights and the very fate of democracy at home and abroad, undermining President Biden with a primary challenge is an unnecessary distraction and only serves to put the future of our country in jeopardy,” Westlin said.

While most Minnesota DFLers are holding back any anger at Phillips, Democrats in Washington, D.C. have not. Phillips was pressured to resign from his Democratic leadership position, co-chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, because of his challenge to Biden.

And it’s not only fellow House Democrats who are miffed.

“He ought to go home to Minnesota,” Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, told HuffPost.  

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who ran in the Democratic primary against Biden in 2020, said she urged Phillips not to get into the race.

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It just doesn’t make sense,” Warren told HuffPost.

Phillips injected himself into presidential politics in July of last year, when he became the first congressional Democrat to suggest Biden, 80, should not run again, citing the president’s age.

RELATED: Read what Phillips said in July 2022 about Biden

Looking to replace Phillips

Phillips’ presidential ambitions have sparked interest in several DFLers to run for his seat.

Ron Harris, a Democratic National Committee executive board member and a former chief resilience officer for the city of Minneapolis, is challenging Phillips in next August’s Democratic primary.

“I respect Dean’s service to our community and thank him for the work he’s done for us, but his decision to run in a primary against President Biden is just plain dangerous,” Harris said Friday. “Attempts to weaken President Biden only serve to help Donald Trump and embolden the extreme MAGA agenda which poses an existential threat to our country.”

Secretary of State Steve Simon said he is giving “serious consideration” to run for Phillips’ 3rd District congressional seat – but only if the lawmaker retires from the U.S. House of Representatives.

Other candidates who say they are interested in running for that seat if Phillips vacates it include state Sen. Kelly Morrison and state Rep. Zack Stephenson. 

Meanwhile, Phillips stands to make a good showing in New Hampshire, because it is the one Democratic primary where Biden will not be on the ballot.

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RELATED: How Dean Phillips could win New Hampshire presidential primary

The Democratic National Committee last year reshuffled its presidential primary calendar so that New Hampshire would no longer be the first one in the nation. Iowa also lost its status as the first Democratic caucus. But New Hampshire plans to hold an early primary anyway, in defiance of the DNC, although the date for that election has not been set.

The Biden campaign said New Hampshire’s failure to obey DNC rules prevents them from putting the president’s name on the primary ballot. Meanwhile, New Hampshire Democrats have unleashed a vigorous write-in campaign for Biden.

Still, Phillips, who prides himself on his messaging abilities, has months to make a name for himself in the Granite State. And he has little competition from other Democrats.

Author Marianne Williamson will be on the Democratic ballot, but her campaign has failed to gain any traction in the polls, and her fundraising has been poor. 

The Biden campaign has largely ignored Phillips and did not return a request for comment. But Biden has an opportunity to soon take a swipe at his Minnesotan rival.

According to The Washington Post, Biden plans to travel to Minnesota for a campaign fundraiser next week — and many of Phillips’ donors are expected to attend.

MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan contributed to this story.