Dean Phillips pushes ahead with presidential run despite Democratic pressure to stay out
Published 8:52 am Friday, October 27, 2023
By Mark Zdechlik and Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips embarked Thursday on a run for president and will take on a fellow Democrat in incumbent President Joe Biden.
His presidential campaign website went live just before 9 p.m., but his campaign was well in action before that. He also filed required paperwork to open a presidential campaign committee. On Friday, he is set to appear at a New Hampshire elections office to file for the presidential primary.
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The Phillips announcement had been long in the making. He began sounding alarms in July 2022 about Biden’s ability to hold the White House in a potential rematch with Republican Donald Trump. Phillips, 54, said it was time for “generational change” in his party and in Washington more broadly.
Phillips had urged other Democrats to take the plunge, but no viable candidates stepped forward. He was gearing up for an opening campaign rally Friday at the state Capitol building in New Hampshire.
Phillips volunteers distributed campaign literature and a “Dean Phillips for President” campaign truck was parked outside the Capitol on Thursday.
Both caught the attention of John Wolfenberger, 58, of the northern New Hampshire town of Bethlehem.
“I don’t know the first thing about him but I would consider it,” Wolfenberger said, calling himself politically neutral. “Actually the truck caught my eye. But anything political, I’m curious who’s doing what. We’re in strange times — just see what the options are.”
The odds will be stacked heavily against Phillips, a third-term suburban district congressman.
No sitting House member since 1880 has won a major party nomination for president, with James Garfield the last. Many nominees and presidents served in the House well before the ultimate political ascent.
And it’s even more difficult to unseat a sitting president given the ability of White House occupants to raise money, control the party machinery and use the bully pulpit to their advantage.
Arizona State University political science professor Steven Smith said Phillips faces a steep climb.
“He has none of the national recognition. And of course, he has virtually no money. So he’d be starting from scratch,” Smith told MPR News’ Morning Edition this month. “He would be very much a long shot.”
In 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy, a brother of a former president, challenged fellow Democratic President Jimmy Carter for the nomination. Kennedy came up short. Smith said that’s instructive here.
“The truth is Congressman Phillips is no Ted Kennedy,” Smith said.
In New Hampshire, Phillips is far from a known quantity. Jeff Davis, of Manchester, describes himself as a lifelong Democrat and Biden supporter. Davis, 66, said he is still interested in hearing about and from Phillips.
“Having a younger alternative might have less target for the hate-mongering of the Trumpophiles,” Davis said. “So I think ‘welcome aboard,’ and we’ll see how it plays out as long as we don’t end up with Trump as president.”
The announcement comes as some state filing periods for primaries arrive. New Hampshire required candidates to file by Friday. The nominating contest itself begins in January and heats up in February into March. He has already missed a deadline to file for Nevada’s presidential preference ballot, a state that is near the front of the Democratic nominating calendar.
While Phillips has personal wealth — in the tens of millions, according to House disclosure forms — his ability to self-finance would be stretched. Raising money also could prove difficult in a bid against Biden.
For his part, Biden is due to travel to Minnesota on Wednesday, which falls a day before the Minnesota Supreme Court will air out a case challenging Trump’s ballot status in 2024.
Leaders within Minnesota’s Democratic Party, from Gov. Tim Walz to Sen. Amy Klobuchar to Party Chair Ken Martin, have lined up full-square behind Biden’s re-election.
“President Biden will be the nominee,” Walz said flatly this week when asked about the prospect of a Phillips run. “That’s where I stand.”
Martin said Thursday he was a “huge fan” of Phillips and his work in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, but did not support Phillips’ presidential aspirations.
“I’m obviously disappointed that he’s decided to, you know, squander his political capital on a wild goose chase,” Martin said.
In Congress, colleagues of Phillips also sounded dismissive of his chances. Rep. Peter Aguilar of California, the House Democratic Caucus chair, said running for another office and succeeding are different things.
“One of the great things about serving in this institution is we see colleagues who want to run for other things. Some of them are successful, some of them aren’t,” Aguilar said this week. “People having ambitions and running for other things in this place is just kind of par for the course.”
Phillips stepped down from his own leadership position ahead of the bid.
His move is sure to open a possibly competitive congressional seat in Minnesota in 2024 unless Phillips falls back to a re-election bid later.
Candidates have already begun to size up that race. Democratic National Committee member Ron Harris has declared his bid for the 3rd Congressional District, composed of many western Twin Cities suburbs. Several state lawmakers said they would consider running for an open seat.
Some people in Phillips’ district were upset by his brewing challenge to Biden, meanwhile others were willing to give him a chance to make the case.
Jim Eisenreich of Eden Prairie, a retired high school business teacher, said he leans libertarian. He said he has never voted for Phillips for Congress but appreciates his courage in taking on his own party’s presidential incumbent.
”As a true independent I mean I vote in every election I find I’m voting for three different parties,” Eisenreich said. “There might be a Republican, a Democrat or libertarian. I always want to be independent. And somebody from our own district, I would be in favor of that.”
Phillips was first elected in 2018, defeating Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen. He ran on a centrist message in a year when backlash against then-President Donald Trump weighed down swing-district Republicans. He was comfortably re-elected in 2020 and 2022.
In the current Congress, he serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Small Business.
He is the latest in a long line of Minnesota politicians to seek the presidency – stretching from Harold Stassen, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale in the middle of the last century to Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Amy Klobuchar in more recent times.
MPR News politics editor Brian Bakst contributed to this story.