CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — For months, Dean Phillips has been calling for a Democratic primary challenge to President Joe Biden. He’s drawn no public interest from governors, lawmakers, and other would-be alternatives.
The 54-year-old Minnesota congressman is finally entering the race himself, telling a Friday event outside New Hampshire’s statehouse, “I am today announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States of America.”
Phillips, one of Congress’ wealthiest members, has been effusive in his praise for Biden but also says their party needs younger voices to avoid a nightmare scenario where Donald Trump is reelected next fall.
While Phillips is highly unlikely to beat Biden, a run would offer a symbolic challenge to national Democrats trying to project the idea that there is no reason to doubt the president’s electability — even as many Americans question whether the 80-year-old Biden should serve another term.
Phillips may also benefit from New Hampshire Democrats angry at Biden for diluting their state’s influence on the 2024 Democratic primary calendar, a change that state party chairman Ray Buckley has warned could create a “potential embarrassment” by “an insurgent candidate, serious or not.”
In a campaign video posted online, Phillips promises to traipse through the snow to greet voters and “fix the economy,” a swipe at Biden who has made job and Gross Domestic Product growth a key of a reelection bid built around the slogan “Bidenomics.”
Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Biden’s reelection campaign said the president “is proud of the historic, unified support he has from across the Democratic Party for his reelection.”
“The stakes of next year’s election could not be higher for the American people, and the campaign is hard at work mobilizing the winning coalition that President Biden can uniquely bring together to once again beat the MAGA Republicans next November,” Munoz said, referring to Trump’s ”Make America Great Again” movement.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also noted earlier in the week Phillips’ voting record and said, “We appreciate the congressman’s almost 100% support of this president.” And, though Biden won’t officially run in New Hampshire’s primary and will be requiring a write-in campaign. the president is planning to head next week to Phillips’ home state for an official event and fundraiser.
Moments before Phillips even announced, meanwhile, Minnesota Democratic Gov. Tim Walz sent a Biden reelection campaign fundraising email titled “Minnesotans love Joe Biden” and taking an indirect swipe at the congressman, writing that some of his state’s residents sometimes “make political side shows for themselves.”
Indeed, Biden has long cast himself as uniquely qualified to beat Donald Trump again after his 2020 win, and top Democrats have lined up behind him while also positioning themselves for a future primary run.
Phillips has already missed the deadline to enter Nevada’s primary and is little known nationally. Still, he argues Biden may not be able to beat Trump again, telling CBS News in an interview that aired Friday that polling suggests “we’re going to be facing an emergency next November.”
“I think it’s time for a new generation,” he said. “I think it’s time to pass the torch.”
New Hampshire primary challenges have a history of wounding incumbent presidents.
In 1968, another Minnesotan, Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy, built his campaign around opposing the Vietnam War and finished second in New Hampshire’s primary, helping push President Lyndon Johnson into forgoing a second term. Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s challenge of President Jimmy Carter and Pat Buchanan’s run against President George H.W. Bush both failed, but Carter and Bush ultimately lost their reelection bids.
The state’s influence on Democrats was curtailed this year by changes engineered by the DNC at Biden’s behest.
A new Democratic calendar has South Carolina leading off presidential primary voting on Feb. 3 and Nevada going three days later. New Hampshire has refused to comply, citing state laws saying its primary must go first, and plans a primary before South Carolina’s. The DNC could, in turn, strip the state of its nominating delegates.
Steve Shurtleff, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House who has distanced himself from Biden, said he has spoken twice with Phillips and believed the congressman might appeal to some Democrats and independents who can choose to vote in the primary.
“I like Biden and have a lot of respect for him. But I’m disappointed that he and the DNC have tried to take away our primary,” Shurtleff said. “It’s not that I want to see Joe lose. It’s that I want to see our primary win.”
But Terry Shumaker, a former DNC member from New Hampshire and longtime Biden supporter, said he expects the president to easily clinch the state as a write-in option. Shumaker recalled going door to door for McCarthy in 1968, but doesn’t see Phillips gaining similar traction.
“I’m not aware of what his message is,” he said. “To do well in the New Hampshire primary, you have to have a message.”
There are no primary debates scheduled, according to the DNC. The only other Democrat running in the 2024 primary is self-help author Marianne Williamson. Anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr. announced this month that he’s running as an independent.
Phillips is heir to his stepfather’s Phillips Distilling Company empire, which holds major vodka and schnapps brands. He once served as that company’s president but also ran the gelato maker Talenti. His grandmother was the late Pauline Phillips, better known as the advice columnist “Dear Abby.”
Driving a gelato truck was a centerpiece of his first House campaign in 2018, when Phillips unseated five-term Republican Erik Paulsen. While his district in mostly affluent greater Minneapolis has become more Democratic-leaning, Phillips has stressed that he is a moderate focused on his suburban constituents. He is a member of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress.
Phillips has been suggesting since the summer that top Democrats challenge Biden. He told CBS that he hoped his announcing would encourage other primary challengers saying of competition “we need it.”
Challenging his party’s leadership isn’t new for Phillips. When he first got to Congress, he spoke of the need for a “new generation” of Democrats to replace then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and was frustrated when no one emerged. He later praised Pelosi as “one of the most successful speakers of all time.”
Still, he’s not the only one voicing concerns now. An AP-NORC poll released in August found that the top words associated with Biden were “old” and “confused.” Nearly 70% of Democrats and 77% of U.S. adults said they thought Biden was too old to be effective for four more years. The same poll found that respondents most frequently described Trump as “corrupt” and “dishonest.”
Leslie Blanding, a retired teacher and Democrat from Bow, New Hampshire, said she did not know Phillips but was “thoroughly conflicted” over whether Biden should face a primary challenger.
“I think Biden is too old. I think from the outset, he should’ve been looking to groom someone to succeed him, and he didn’t do that,” said Blanding, 75. “But I think he seems to be the only one positioned to have a strong chance of defeating Trump or whomever.”