CONCORD, N.H. — The presidential campaign Dean Phillips will launch on Friday is such a longshot that some of his colleagues call it a vanity project. Other top Democrats privately deem it a mid-life crisis.
It may also be the clearest distillation to date of the undercurrent of discontent with Joe Biden among Democratic Party voters, even if it’s not likely to represent much of a genuine threat to the president.
Phillips, a millionaire businessperson, sees his quixotic bid differently. In private conversations, the Minnesota Democrat has stressed that voters need a generational alternative to the 80-year-old president. A half-dozen people who have spoken directly to him say he has sincerely described feeling something akin to obligation to primary Biden, while also expressing concern about Biden’s ability to beat former President Donald Trump a second time. He is “seeing a problem that everyone sees, but no one is talking about,” said one of those people, granted anonymity to discuss private conversations. They described Phillips as “frustrated” by it all.
“He was really earnest in his presentation of it. He framed it as this revelation he had when he was in Vietnam, visiting the site of his father’s death,” said another person who spoke to Phillips, citing the trip the lawmaker took last spring to the place where his father was killed in a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War. “But I don’t think he understands the institutional forces that he is going to be up against and how — even if a lot of Democrats privately share some of his fears — no one is going to line up behind him.”
Initially, Phillips told these people he wanted to publicly recruit another candidate to this effort. In August, he called for a “moderate governor” to step up. “I thought there was a way for him to raise this concern, identify if there was space for another candidate, get someone else in, and then gracefully bow out and resume being a member of Congress,” said a third person who spoke to Phillips directly.
“Now, I feel like he missed the window to land this plane,” the person added.
Instead, Phillips himself decided to run — formally filing paperwork for “Dean 24, Inc.” to the Federal Elections Commission on Thursday night. Several people said the campaign Phillips is likely to mount will bear a strong resemblance to his 2018 congressional bid.
During that contest, Phillips shunned much of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s advice, relying on his deep marketing background instead. He drove a 1960 International Harvester milk truck to 32 cities and towns across his suburban Minneapolis-based House district, running a retail-heavy election. He argued for spending less on TV than on digital ads, while largely refusing to go negative on his Republican opponent.
His approach infuriated many Democrats in Washington. He won anyway, flipping a seat that hadn’t elected a Democrat in decades.
Signs of Phillips dusting off that playbook are already evident. A “Dean Phillips for President” bus, seen recently driving around New Hampshire by two operatives in the state, is tagged with a 2018 slogan: “Everyone’s invited.” The “government repair truck” he used in 2018 is making another appearance, too, repainted with “Dean Phillips for President.”
“He wants to scale his 2018 campaign to New Hampshire, if not to the national level,” said one of the people who has spoken directly with the representative.
But a presidential primary is not a congressional race, especially when your objective is to take out an incumbent. And there are other clear and serious hurdles ahead.
Phillips has already failed to make the ballot in Nevada, the second presidential nominating state, and he’s relying, in part, on a bombastic former Republican operative to lead it. In New Hampshire, where he plans to ground his bid, he’s a total unknown, needing to introduce himself to the state party chair just two weeks ago.
He’s also squaring off against Biden, who’s sitting on $91 million in campaign cash with the entire party machinery arrayed behind him.
For its part, the Biden campaign is not expected to engage the Phillips campaign much, according to a source familiar with the campaign’s thinking. To the extent they do, however, the source noted that they would cast him as wealthy and out-of-touch, while highlighting his 100 percent voting record with Biden.
“Everyone I know, to a person, is mystified, perplexed and frustrated by this move, and Dean has not really offered any public explanation,” said Jeff Blodgett, a top Minnesota Democratic operative and donor adviser. “People here are all in on Biden and focused on the work to get him reelected.”
Steve Schmidt, a top campaign strategist to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, is working with Phillips, which several Democrats called a “red flag.” In 2020, Schmidt also advised former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, another wealthy businessperson who considered an Independent presidential run. In addition, Phillips has brought on Ondine Fortune as a media buyer, while a firm led by Bill Fletcher, a Tennessee-based ad-maker, obtained permits for Phillips’ Friday event. Several staffers from Phillips’ congressional campaign are also filling out the early operation.
Phillips’ New Hampshire-focused bid comes at a particularly fraught moment for Democrats in the state, who lost their first-in-the-nation primary status for the 2024 presidential cycle earlier this month. The Democratic National Committee, with Biden’s blessing, reordered the presidential nominating calendar last year, elevating South Carolina to the first-place slot.
But Phillips hasn’t yet reached out to South Carolina Democrats, a sign “he’s not serious,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Christale Spain, who called Phillips “a distraction” because “any serious Democratic candidate, would understand that Black voters in South Carolina have been the backbone of the Democratic Party.” The state’s presidential filing deadline closes on Nov. 10.
New Hampshire, meanwhile, plans to run an unsanctioned contest, which is unlikely to yield any delegates for whomever wins the state in January. This week, the Biden campaign confirmed that the president’s name will not appear on the ballot, but top New Hampshire Democrats are expected to lead a write-in effort on his behalf. Marianne Williamson, who ran for president in 2020, will also appear on the New Hampshire ballot.
Turmoil over the calendar is a factor for former New Hampshire House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, who said he “hopes” Phillips runs “because of the way things have been lined up by the DNC,” who are “trying to take it out of the hands of the people.”
“I’ve got respect for Phillips that he may decide to get in the race, knowing what the price he might pay,” Shurtleff continued. “By challenging the president, for someone like Dean, it could be the end of his political career.”
That question about Phillips’ future is still baffling Minnesota Democrats, many of whom said they expected him to run for statewide office one day. Instead, Democrats are lining up to run for his House seat, where he’s already drawn a primary challenger in Ron Harris, a DNC executive committee member.
“I believe every other Democratic member of Congress in Minnesota is supporting Biden, so it doesn’t help when your home team is on board with the incumbent president, while you’re trying to mount a challenge,” said Mike Erlandson, a former chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “I don’t know that the congressman is particularly concerned one way or the other about what other people in political places of power think, though this probably doesn’t help him with a statewide office run at home.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.