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Will Dean Phillips survive his presidential trial balloon?

Call for Biden challenger could affect Phillips at home and on Capitol Hill

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips burst onto the national stage a month ago by calling for a primary challenge to President Joe Biden.
Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips burst onto the national stage a month ago by calling for a primary challenge to President Joe Biden. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Minnesota Democrat Dean Phillips pulled off a difficult feat: He made news as a third-term member of the House minority. But did he damage the Democratic Party and his own political future in the process?

Phillips burst onto the national stage a month ago by calling for a primary challenge to President Joe Biden. But even if his intentions were noble, the immediate talk was whether he actually jeopardized Biden’s reelection chances and hurt his own future prospects.

The Phillips boomlet began in late July when Politico reported he would be meeting with potential donors in New York about a possible run himself. Within a couple of weeks, Phillips escalated the story by making the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows. 

“Democrats are telling me that they want, not a coronation, but they want a competition,” Phillips said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in early August. “If we don’t heed that call, shame on us. And the consequences, I believe, are going to be disastrous,” said the congressman, presumably referring to a second term for former President Donald Trump. 

Phillips’ comments alone weren’t necessarily provocative, considering Biden is the oldest president in history and his job approval rating has been underwater since the country’s exit from Afghanistan two years ago. But it was the timing, Phillips’ creative use of polling and how he sort of offered himself as an alternative that got Democrats’ attention — and not necessarily in a good way.

In Phillips’ defense, he voiced concern about Biden’s electability back in February, but the comments didn’t receive as much attention. Maybe the race still seemed far off, or he wasn’t as explicit about being the alternative. But his summer comments gave a face to a potential primary beyond Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

“I think I’m well positioned to be president [of] the United States. … I do not believe I’m well positioned to run for it right now,” Phillips said in the initial round of August interviews. But Democrats who watched Phillips climb out onto the primary limb by himself noticed that about a week later his stance evolved to encouraging the party to look to a governor such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, JB Pritzker of Illinois or Minnesota’s own Tim Walz as the alternative rather than himself

‘A lot of eye rolls’

So how will this affect Phillips in the future?

One source in the Twin Cities business community suggested that Phillips was on a mission from House leadership to give voice to the concerns of a wider population. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

“For any Democratic elected official to come out openly calling for a primary to the president is very surprising, as evidenced by the fact that he’s literally the only one. It just solicited a lot of eye rolls,” said one of Phillips’ colleagues on Capitol Hill. 

“The idea that he’s speaking for leadership is absurd,” the lawmaker continued. “There’s a zero percent chance that he was put up to this.”

It might have been to Phillips’ benefit that most of the story played out while Congress was out of session and members didn’t have the opportunity to interact with each other and call him out face to face.

“The focus is on taking back the House, and we don’t take back the House with a divided party,” according to a source close to Democratic leadership. “I’m sure there are members that share his perspective. But it defies common sense that leadership would put him up to it.”

Democrats know that the stronger Biden is at the top of the ticket, the more potential for coattails, particularly in New York and California, where the party needs to do well in order to net the five seats nationwide that are necessary to win the House majority.

Multiple sources pointed out that Phillips, as a rich, straight, white man, is both unlikely to be an attractive candidate to the Democratic base in a presidential race and unlikely to be sent by Democratic House leadership on a public mission about the need for change at the top of the party.

No immediate danger

While some Democrats may be tempted to punish Phillips for his efforts, he’s not in immediate danger of losing his suburban Minneapolis seat.

Because Phillips got to Congress by defeating GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen in a competitive race in 2018, there’s a perception that he’s one of Democrats’ more vulnerable members. But that’s not the case. 

Inside Elections rates Minnesota’s 3rd District race as Solid Democratic. Phillips won his first two races by nearly a dozen points and his most recent election in 2022 by nearly 20 points. Biden won the district by 21 points in 2020. When Phillips was first elected, the 3rd District overlapped with 17 Republican state legislators. Now there are just four. 

DFLers have a 15.4-point Baseline advantage in Minnesota’s 3rd District (56.2 to 40.8 percent). A Republican winning in the 3rd would be the equivalent of a Republican winning Delaware. 

Up to this point, Phillips has done a good job of cultivating a moderate image in the district. Even though he’s a Democrat, Phillips is invited to attend (and is a consistent presence) at business-friendly events in the region, and his consistent message about the need for civility in politics plays well. He didn’t need to demonstrate independence from the Democratic Party in order to win reelection. 

But the potential to hurt Biden and the Democratic Party prompted talk about a primary challenger, according to local tipsheet Morning Take. That prospect this cycle was never particularly serious, according to local sources, even before former state Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen took a job with the University of Minnesota. She was talked about as the biggest primary threat to Phillips. 

Questioning Biden’s ability to win, particularly if he loses to Trump, could come back to haunt Phillips in a future statewide race. If he faces off in a primary for governor or senator with 2nd District Rep. Angie Craig, this would be a distinguishing factor, according to multiple sources in the state.

There is a genuine nervousness among Democrats about the impact of Biden’s age on the 2024 general election. But the consensus is that it’s too late to switch horses, and the best plan is to band together to fight the existential threat of Trump.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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