WASHINGTON — House Democrats say they are simply baffled by their colleague Rep. Dean Phillips’ decision Friday to launch a long-shot primary challenge against President Joe Biden, warning that his actions have killed a once-promising political career and could boost Donald Trump’s chances to win the White House.
“He does have a very good heart. And I believe that in his heart, he thinks this is the right thing to do. But it’s quite the opposite,” said one House Democrat close to Phillips. “It’s destructive. He’s essentially torpedoing his career completely and destroying any goodwill he has within the Democratic Party. And he’s got no path — there’s no path. So this is an exercise in futility.”
A moderate Minnesota Democrat, Phillips has been a beloved member of the Democratic Caucus and was seen as a rising star on Capitol Hill. Less than a year ago, his colleagues elected him to the leadership team as one of the co-chairs of House Democrats’ policy and communications operation. He recently resigned from that post after calling for a primary challenger to run against Biden, arguing that the president, at 80, is too old for another term (Phillips is 54).
His personal affability and popularity in the caucus is a big reason why few are willing to talk on the record about Phillips’ quixotic White House bid against the incumbent president. Privately, however, they can’t make any sense of it, suggesting it will be a political dead end for Phillips.
“It’s a head-scratcher,” a second House Democrat said Friday, a sentiment echoed by many others in the party since Phillips first started flirting with a bid over the summer. “He is a great member, a good strategic thinker. I don’t know what he hopes to achieve.”
A third House Democrat said he has racked his brain trying to come up with an explanation for Phillips’ seemingly last-minute, haphazard presidential bid.
“He’s well liked in caucus and I can’t understand what he is hoping to accomplish here. I’m not just saying it as a rhetorical statement: I really don’t understand what the point is,” the third lawmaker said in a phone interview Friday. “I don’t know if he’s hoping to come out in favor of a certain cause, elevate an issue that’s not receiving attention or whether he has some other goal, but I haven’t heard it clearly articulated.”
“So I’m concerned, in the absence of that type of articulation, it appears as though he is doing it in a way that could possibly harm Biden’s standing,” the lawmaker continued.
A fourth Democrat texted this emoji when asked about Phillips 2024: 🤷♀️.
“I think he genuinely believes there needs to be a primary and he thinks he’s doing the right thing,” that Democrat said.
In a fundraising email for Biden, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat and former House member, appeared to mock Phillips’ run but in a very “Minnesota nice” way.
“You know, I have to say this about Minnesota: it’s a great state, full of great people. And sometimes they do crazy things,” Walz wrote Friday in the pitch, which didn’t mention Phillips by name. “Like setting the world record for most basketballs spun at the same time (that’s true) or winning the most WNBA championships (go Lynx!). And sometimes … they make political side shows for themselves. But that’s for another email.”
The only sitting House member to ever be elected president was James Garfield, in 1880.
Phillips, who filed his candidacy for president in New Hampshire on Friday, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Elected in the anti-Trump wave that swept House Democrats back into power in 2018, Phillips has pushed for civility and bipartisanship in politics. But he also has been one of the loudest voices demanding generational change in a party run by septuagenarians and octogenarians.
In 2022, Phillips was one of a handful of younger lawmakers calling for “new blood” to replace House Democrats’ longtime triumvirate: Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, who are all in their 80s.
Those leaders did step aside after last year’s midterms. Now, after several high-profile Democrats rejected his calls for someone to take on Biden, who turns 81 next month, Phillips has decided to do it himself.
In interviews, Phillips is highlighting polls showing that voters are concerned about Biden’s age and is sounding the alarm that Biden would lose to the GOP front-runner, Donald Trump, in a general election.
“The polls say it, the numbers say it, but most importantly, the people are saying it. … What matters is people are saying it in conversation. They’re saying it to every single one of their elected officials, they’re saying it around their kitchen tables in their neighborhoods, in their garages, on their farms, in their coffee shops,” Phillips told reporters on his campaign bus in Concord, New Hampshire.
“And the fact that people are not being heard is why we have the anger in the country,” he continued. “So the answer is yes, he will lose. And I’m not the only one that thinks that. I may be one of the few that’s simply willing to say it out loud.”
One House Democrat who represents a swing district said they thought Phillips’ candidacy will end up helping Biden’s re-election bid.
“In some ways I think Dean getting in is going to force people to kind of grapple sooner than maybe they want to with who do they really want, who stands with them, and for them, and who can win,” the lawmaker said. “And I think in all of those dimensions, it’s just going to very obviously be Joe Biden… This will force, and kind of catalyze folks, to rally for the president, myself included.”
In the 2018 midterms, Phillips flipped a GOP seat to the Democrat column when he defeated Republican incumbent Rep. Erik Paulsen. Since then, Phillips has served in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, and worked with Republicans, including Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., and French Hill, R-Ark., on things like military and entrepreneurship issues.
He is among the wealthiest members of Congress. Before arriving in Washington, he ran his family’s wine and spirits business, Phillips Distilling, and helped launch Talenti Gelato and a coffee business.
In May, Phillips sat down with NBC News at the Vietnam Memorial and shared the emotional story of his search for the helicopter crash site in Vietnam where his father, a young Army captain, had been killed a half-century ago.
“It had become a mission,” Phillips said of his journey. “And when I got there, I can remember thinking, ‘This is where he took his last breath.’ And for me, it felt like a place where I could take my first.”
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