A Minnesota congressman with little national name recognition is shaking up the Democratic primary after President Joe Biden has had the field largely to himself since April.
Dean Phillips, the third-term congressman who represents Minneapolis’ western suburbs, launched a primary challenge to the incumbent on Oct. 26, and has cited the need for alternatives to Biden in 2024, as well as concerns over the president’s age and electability. Multiple Minnesota Democrats and political experts described the congressman and his presidential aspirations as “sincere” in interviews and statements to the Daily Caller News Foundation, yet many were split over whether his candidacy would impact the primary.
However, some questioned why he would seek to stifle support for Biden during a time which they view party unity as imperative.
“In order for Democrats to win, we need everyone to buy in. We need our liberals to buy in, our progressives to buy in, our conservative Democrats to buy in, and our socialists to buy in. We need all of the people on the political left to be supporting Biden,” Briana Lee, chair of the Minneapolis Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, the state’s Democratic Party affiliate, told the DCNF. “If you think [Donald] Trump is an existential threat, why on earth would you want to hurt the incumbent president’s chances?”
Phillips grew up in Edina, Minnesota, and went to Brown University for his undergraduate studies, later attending the University of Minnesota for his MBA. The congressman led Phillips Distilling Company, his family’s alcohol business, through 2012, and has been serving as the co-chair of The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota, his family’s philanthropy, since 2002. Phillips was also the executive chairman for Talenti Gelato before co-founding Penny’s Coffee in 2015.
“I don’t think trust fund babies make for great public servants,” Lee said of Phillips’ background.
The congressman decided to jump into politics in 2018 when he ran for Minnesota’s Third Congressional District that had been held by incumbent Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen for ten years. Phillips ousted Paulsen 55.6% to 44.2%, was reelected in 2020 by a similar margin and secured his latest term last year by nearly 20 points.
Minnesota DFL state Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, who represents a portion of Phillips’ district and considers him a friend, didn’t know much about the congressman until the senator moderated a candidate forum for the seat, where he told the DCNF he was “so impressed” by Phillips’ “demeanor,” “attitude” and “philosophy.”
Phillips’ ousting of Paulsen “came as a shock” to many in the area, as the district had been represented by a Republican for decades and Phillips was a political newcomer, according to Cwodzinski, who described the congressman as an up-and-coming young Democrat at the time.
The congressman’s election represented a political shift in the area following the election of former President Donald Trump in 2016, according to Daniel Myers, political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
“I think Phillips is notable for being elected from suburban congressional districts that had been held by Republicans for a long time in the sort of pre-Trump era, and in some ways he represents the kind of voter that Democrats have been more successful with, they’ve sort of migrated to the party in the last seven or eight years, your sort of college-educated suburbanites,” Myers told the DCNF. “In that sense, I think it’s interesting that he’s the one who’s actually mounting a primary challenge.”
The congressman is a member of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, is the vice ranking member on the House Small Business Committee and is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Prior to his presidential run, he stepped down from his Democratic leadership position as the co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.
“He’s one of those rare individuals that truly loves what he does,” said Cwodzinski. “It’s a joy and a pleasure to be a state senator in his district, because I really believe he doesn’t just have that personality trait to just love what [he does], but he believes in that as a philosophy, as an elected official.”
However, while Phillips has attempted to distinguish himself relative to Biden, he almost always votes in lockstep with the president.
Phillips’ voting record largely aligns with House Democratic leadership and the Biden administration on key issues like abortion, gun control, climate change, the LGBT community and other topics. The congressman votes with the president 100% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker.
The congressman voted against the House GOP’s Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act in January, which would’ve required health care providers to treat infants who survive the procedure as they would any other patient. Conversely, Phillips voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act in 2022, which would bar restrictions on abortion at all levels of government.
Phillips also voted for several bills that restricted firearm access in 2021 and 2022, including the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the Assault Weapons Ban. Additionally, the congressman voted for Biden’s signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, in 2022.
In 2022, the congressman also supported the Respect For Marriage Act to codify same sex marriage, and the Equality Act, which sought to bar discrimination on the basis of “sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”
Former Minnesota state House DFL Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who represented a portion of Phillips’ district and campaigned alongside of and worked with on constituent issues, told the DCNF that “he has been an effective member of Congress for what he has set out to do, which is to form stronger bipartisan relationships, and to speak from the middle of the political spectrum.”
“I think he’s very sincere in believing that people’s best intentions in politics can be brought forward even in a very combative environment. I think his message about everyone being included grew out of some of his experience in the hospitality industry and I think he really believes that there is a better way of politics where people can come together and talk through issues and find common ground by dialing down the combative rhetoric,” said Winkler. “I think that in terms of his policies, he is less well-defined, and I think is more focused on a friendly process, rather than a particular set of issues to champion.”
Phillips frequently cites the need for Americans of all political beliefs to come together, and has coined the campaign slogan “Everyone’s Invited.” The congressman was described by the Minnesota Democrats and experts as being a moderate Democrat.
However, some state Democrats see Phillips’ run as harmful to the party, including Lee who voiced concern over what she views as the congressman’s “run to Biden’s right.”
Lee doesn’t support Phillips bringing more moderates to the Democratic cause, as she believes it is “diluting our party.” The chair criticized Phillips for being more “conservative,” and accused him of not wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic when most liberal Democrats were.
Some of the Minnesota Democrats and political experts balked at Phillips’ presidential bid, while others believe he could have a chance to garner significant support, namely in the New Hampshire primary.
“I think it’s mostly a waste of time and effort. I think it’s a distraction from the main event of the 2024 election, and I don’t think he can accomplish anything with his campaign,” said Winkler. “I think that his motives are likely sincere and high-minded, but I think his belief in his ability to make a difference as he sees it is somewhat naive.”
Cwodzinski isn’t convinced that Phillips has “a shot” at the primary, but told the DCNF he supports the congressman’s “efforts to try to bring along more dialogue.”
Reid Madden, an active member of the DFL in Phillips’ district, believes Phillips has “more of a shot than people think.”
“It’s still a long shot,” said Madden. “He’s both benefiting from people not really knowing about him and has a long way to go in winning people over because of that.”
Phillips received 4% support for a Democratic primary survey released
For a 2024 Democratic primary, Phillips received 4% support in a Messenger/Harris poll released Nov. 1 and 6% in a Quinnipiac University survey published the same day — both of which he finished third behind both Biden and Williamson. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. enjoyed roughly 14% support in the Democratic primary before he switched his campaign to independent on Oct. 9, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
Biden isn’t participating in the New Hampshire primary, leaving only Phillips and Williamson’s names to appear on the ballot, though a write-in campaign is underway in the state for the president. The move came after the state party decided not to comply with the Democratic National Committee’s new primary calendar, endorsed by Biden, to replace its long-held, first-in-the-nation status with South Carolina.
“I think the sort of administrative back-and-forth within the Democratic Party about the place of the New Hampshire primary does maybe open a little bit of a crack there,” Myers said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Phillips does pretty well in the New Hampshire primary. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he sort of ‘won’ the New Hampshire primary against a write-in campaign — those are notoriously difficult to coordinate.”
The congressman has already received the endorsement from the New Hampshire state House’s former Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff, who previously criticized the state party Chairman Ray Buckley in a statement to the DCNF for leading a write-in effort for Biden.
Phillips’ presidential campaign platform is largely focused on the economy, community safety, “generational change” and achieving a “less divisive political environment.”
“I do so not in opposition to President Biden, who has my affection and my gratitude, rather with two core convictions: that I am the Democratic candidate who can win, who can win the 2024 election. And second, it is time for the torch to be passed to a new generation of American leaders,” Phillips said in a speech Oct. 27.
Mary Lou Masters on November 5, 2023