WASHINGTON —Rep. Dean Phillips appears to be inching toward a decision to run against President Joe Biden in next year’s presidential primaries.
Phillips, D-3rd District, last week spoke with Ray Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, to indicate an interest in running for that state’s presidential primary, which is seeking to be the first such contest in the nation.
“I called Chairman Buckley to introduce myself as I contemplate entering the Democratic primary,” Phillips said in an emailed statement. “It was a very friendly conversation.”
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.
New Hampshire does have an Oct. 27 deadline for candidates to file so they can appear on the primary ballot, so Phillips must make a decision soon if he wants to participate.
In his third term representing the Twin Cities’ western suburbs in the U.S. House, 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.
Phillips, who considers himself a centrist, initially indicated he would only run for president if Biden were to drop out. Then he said his role was to try to convince other moderate Democrats to challenge the president. But that hasn’t happened. So now he’s considering an effort to topple his party’s leader.
Despite his limited time in government, Phillips, 54, could become the most prominent Democrat running against Biden. And he could actually stand a chance of winning an important presidential primary if he runs in New Hampshire.
The only candidates currently challenging the president in that state are self-help author Marianne Williamson, who is struggling with her campaign, and media figurehead Cenk Uygur, who has welcomed Phillips to join him in challenging Biden. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said recently he’d run as an independent instead of a Democrat.
Because New Hampshire is defying the DNC and Biden’s decision to have South Carolina host the first presidential primary on Feb. 3, the president won’t be on the ballot in the Granite State.
“Biden has very clearly said South Carolina should go first,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala.
So, without Biden on the ballot, Phillips could conceivably win. But there is also a chance he would not, Scala said.
He said there could be an orchestrated write-in campaign by state Democrats that would put Biden over the top.
Democratic voters in the state may be motivated to join the write-in campaign because they believe a primary challenge weakens Biden and makes victory by a GOP rival, likely former President Donald Trump, more likely, Scala said.
“And Phillips’ name recognition in New Hampshire is close to zero,” the professor said.
Voting 100% with Biden
The 54-year-old Phillips stepped down recently from his post as the House’s Democratic Policy and Communications committee due to his opposition to Biden’s reelection.
An active member of the bipartisan Problem Solver’s Caucus, Phillips has embraced some GOP positions. Those include support of term limits for members of Congress, more money for community policing and saying the United States and its allies should “neutralize” Iran if that U.S. foe is found to have been involved in Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel.
And last week, Phillips told MPR News he was willing to cross party lines to support Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, if the crisis in the U.S. House leadership did not result in Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries becoming speaker in the House. (Democrats are nominating Jeffries for the speakership despite being in the minority after Republicans have struggled to replace ousted GOP Speaker Kevin McCarthy.)
“I would love to see a Minnesota speaker of the House if Mr. Jeffries is not going to be that person. I think Mr. Emmer could be the bipartisan bridge to the future,” Phillips said.
Despite his talk of bipartisanship, FiveThirtyEight determined Phillips voted 100% of the time for key bills that were supported by Biden.
A successful businessman and heir of a prominent Minnesota family that owns Phillips Distilling Company, Phillips has held elected office only since 2019.
And in recent history, no U.S. House member has become a major party’s presidential nominee.
But a U.S. senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, did challenge a sitting president — in this case former President Lyndon Johnson — in 1968.
That challenge helped Johnson decide against seeking reelection, even if it did not result in McCarthy becoming the Democratic nominee. Instead, it went to another Minnesotan — Johnson’s vice president and former Sen. Hubert Humphrey.
Phillips is personable, well-spoken and embraces an appealing message of optimism. And polls show that many Americans share Phillips’ concerns about Biden’s age.
Still, some DFLers in Minnesota and Democrats in Washington, D.C., are rankled by Phillips’ campaign against the president.
Ron Harris, a former chief resilience officer for the city of Minneapolis and a Democratic National Committee member who was chairman of the organization’s Midwestern Caucus, recently announced he wants to wrest the 3rd District seat from Phillips.
“Our community deserves strong, effective, Democratic leadership ready to stand with President @JoeBiden & deliver for working families,” Harris said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Other DFLers may also get into the race but say they won’t do so unless Phillips decides he no longer wants to serve in Congress. Those possible candidates include state Sen. Kelly Morrison and state Rep. Zack Stephenson.
However, those potential candidates may never enter the race. Phillips could run for president through the early primary process, held during the first few months of next year. Then, if Phillips does not do well in those presidential primaries, he could shift to run for reelection to his congressional seat because the filing deadline for Minnesota’s congressional primaries is not until next June.
If Democrats’ loyalty toward Biden and a lack of national name recognition for Phillips weren’t enough, the Minnesota congressman has one more challenge to overcome: fundraising. Although Phillips said he’s traveled to New York to meet with potential donors to his presidential campaign, he has not raised a lot of campaign cash during the last quarter for his congressional campaign.
According to the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Phillips — who does not accept money from political action committees — raised about $198,000 in that quarter. That compares to $660,000 raised by his Democratic colleague, Rep. Angie Craig, during the same period.