House Democrat Dean Phillips launches primary challenge against President Biden
(CNN) — Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips formally launched his presidential campaign Friday and filed to run in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, kicking off his long-shot challenge to President Joe Biden.
Speaking aboard his campaign bus in Concord, Phillips said he felt compelled to challenge Biden – whom he called a “terrific president” – over his concerns that the incumbent would lose a general election rematch against former President Donald Trump. The congressman said he tried to encourage Biden to pass the torch and to convince other Democratic candidates to run in the primary. When those efforts failed, he entered the race himself.
“It’s time for change. I’m hearing that all around the country,” Phillips told CNN. “This was not about me. But my inability to attract other candidates, to inspire the president to recognize that it is time, compels me to serve my country because it appears that President Joe Biden is going to lose the next election.”
For months, the third-term congressman, who recently left his House Democratic leadership position in the face of intraparty frustration over his calls for a Biden alternative, has argued that the president would be a weak general election candidate due to his age and low approval ratings. But his campaign launch comes as Democrats are seeking to unify around Biden, fend off spoiler independent candidates and lay out the administration’s accomplishments to voters. Biden allies have described talk of Phillips running as a distraction that would only serve to highlight the president’s weak points.
Phillips and his team have insisted they plan to mount a serious challenge to Biden that will go beyond New Hampshire. Speaking to reporters Friday morning in Concord, Phillips said it would be “foolish” to run just to raise his national profile.
“If someone wanted to get their name ID out there, why would they do this and take the arrows and the mean-spiritedness and the aggression and the sacrifice that this requires?” he said.
Steve Schmidt, a former Republican operative who is now advising Phillips’ campaign, told reporters Friday that the congressman plans to hold more than 119 town halls in the early-voting Democratic primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan.
“If you want to be the Democratic nominee, the first thing you have to do is win the first race,” Schmidt said Friday. Schmidt, who left the GOP in 2018, previously worked on the presidential campaigns of former President George W. Bush and late Sen. John McCain.
Phillips plans to level several criticisms at Biden in the speech he’s set to deliver on the steps of the New Hampshire state capitol later Friday morning.
“Chaos at our border and in our cities is growing, while our commitment to countering it is receding,” the Minnesota congressman is expected to say, according to a campaign spokesperson.
Already, Phillips’ campaign strategy is causing headaches for the party. Biden will not file to appear on the New Hampshire Democratic primary ballot because the state isn’t complying with the national party’s revised nominating calendar, which demoted its first-in-the-nation primary status to second. Instead, Democrats will launch a write-in campaign for the president.
With Phillips’ entry into the race, that effort will become that much more important to New Hampshire Democrats, who would want to spare Biden an embarrassing early primary defeat. Phillips has already reserved $50,000 in ad time in the state this week, according to data from AdImpact.
Phillips’ initial campaign ad highlights his laser focus on the New Hampshire primary. In the minutelong video, he describes summer visits to the state he made as a child and champions its long tradition of expecting presidential candidates to engage in retail politics — something Biden won’t be doing.
“I love New Hampshire,” he says. “That’s why I’m back, as a candidate for president, in the place where we begin. Where presidential candidates stand before you, the voters, walk through the snow, listen to your dreams, hear your concerns, and most of all, discuss how we’re going to work together to move to the future.”
Outside New Hampshire, Phillips would face an even steeper road. While he used his personal wealth – which is in the tens of millions, according to his most recent financial disclosure – to help “get the ball rolling” on his campaign, Schmidt said Phillips will not self-fund his bid and plans to rely on small-dollar donors.
Phillips is among the first to admit that he lacks the name recognition of other Democrats seen as future presidential contenders, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
And his decision to focus on New Hampshire after the Democratic National Committee sought to elevate South Carolina to go first on the primary calendar could hurt him in the Palmetto State’s February 3 contest.
“South Carolina is an important testing ground for presidential candidates and so far, Dean Phillips is failing it,” South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Christale Spain said in a statement. “South Carolina could not be more excited to once again back President Biden as our nominee.”
Phillips said he’s looking forward to visiting South Carolina, adding that he was “disappointed” Democrats would suggest that it’s “somehow shameful” to campaign in New Hampshire.
“That’s unfortunate,” he said. “And I think that’s actually a symptom of the disease of politics that I hope I can be the antidote for.”
Calls for new leadership
Until recently, Phillips was known as a mild-mannered moderate, one of dozens who helped Democrats take control of the House in 2018. The heir to a Minnesota liquor business and grandson of Abigail Van Buren, the late advice columnist known as “Dear Abby,” Phillips’ first campaign focused on defending the Affordable Care Act and fixing government dysfunction.
Over the past year, however, he’s become the most prominent member of his party to call on Biden to not seek reelection, warning that the party needs a new generation of leaders to step forward.
That stance has cost him support within his own party: Phillips announced earlier this month that he was stepping down as co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which handles the caucus’s messaging, after being called out during a closed-door caucus meeting for being out of step with the party’s stance on Biden’s reelection bid.
Phillips attempted to reach out to Biden in August, but the president was unavailable, according to a source. Instead, Phillips spoke to White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, who “heard him out,” the source said, but conveyed that the “president is the right person to win in 2024 and finish the job.”
Phillips told CNN that he tried to reach out to Biden “as a courtesy to advise him of my intentions, which at that time were to call for a new generation of candidates to compete for the nomination.” He said the call with Zients was “brief but friendly.”
Back home, the reception has been icy. In a Biden campaign fundraising email sent Friday, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota wrote that sometimes people in his state do “crazy things” like “make political sideshows for themselves,” a seeming dig at Phillips’ campaign.
“One other thing is true of Minnesota: We love Joe Biden and we’re working day in and day out to get him reelected,” the email read.
Phillips has also drawn a primary challenger for his suburban Twin Cities seat in DNC Executive Committee member Ron Harris. (Phillips has until June 4 to register to run for reelection in Minnesota ahead of the state’s August 13 primary for nonpresidential races.)
After leaving leadership, Phillips said he felt “liberated” and able to speak more freely. For months, he has said that while he thinks Biden is a great president, polling shows voters are concerned about his age and have given him low job approval ratings.
“I don’t know how one can dismiss what we’re hearing, what we’re seeing, what we’re sensing and what we’re reading. And it all points to the same thing,” Phillips told CNN after he stepped down from leadership. “If Democrats do not listen right now, I’m afraid the consequences will be another Trump administration.”
In a September CNN poll, two-thirds of Democrats said they wanted the party to nominate someone other than Biden. But 67% of Democrats also said they believed it is very or extremely likely that Biden will be the party’s nominee and 82% said they didn’t have a specific challenger to the president in mind. Nearly half of Democrats cited Biden’s age as their biggest concern about his 2024 campaign.
After Biden announced in April that he would seek a second term, Phillips called on other Democratic leaders to launch a primary challenge and hinted that he may run himself. In July, he met with donors in New York to discuss a possible bid.
From there, speculation over a potential 2024 campaign grew, as Phillips reached out to New Hampshire leaders. Earlier this week, a Dean Phillips for President bus was seen driving through Ohio, presumably en route to the Granite State.
Biden — who raised $71 million for his reelection and the Democratic Party in the third fundraising quarter of 2023 — is the overwhelming favorite for the party nomination. In February, the DNC’s membership unanimously approved a resolution to express its “full and complete support” for Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their reelection in 2024.
Incumbents historically have not participated in primary debates, and this cycle is no different – there are none on the books.
That’s left little room for challengers. Author Marianne Williamson, another long-shot Democratic candidate, has failed to make a dent in the polls since she launched her campaign in March.
Environmental lawyer and vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. left the Democratic primary earlier this month to run as an independent, raising concerns that he would pull votes from Biden and help Republicans. Allies of former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nod, are in turn worried the Kennedy campaign could boost Biden.
In Congress, Phillips has consistently voted with the president and hasn’t criticized his policy positions, a point the White House has made.
“We appreciate the congressman’s almost 100% support of this president as he’s moved forward with some really important, key legislative priorities for the American people,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Arlette Saenz, David Wright and Jeff Simon contributed to this report.