Political scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr. running as a Democrat could have spelled trouble for President Biden, but his decision to run as an independent made his candidacy at least as much of a problem for Republicans in the short term. Progressive scholar Cornel West left the Green Party to similarly run as an independent, mucking up his ability to get his name on the ballot. And Democratic groups have moved to squash a third-party presidential ticket supported by centrist organization No Labels.
Enter Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).
In a last-ditch effort to provide a Democratic or third-party alternative to Biden, Phillips will be launching a primary challenge on Friday, seizing on Biden’s anemic approval ratings among key Democratic constituencies and wariness over his age. He is expected to officially announce his bid at the New Hampshire State House, where candidates file to make it onto the state’s primary ballot, and then begin a bus tour.
But Phillips throwing his hat into the Democratic primary ring is unlikely to undermine Biden’s chance of securing the nomination, according to Democratic strategists, highlighting the clear path Biden has faced to the general election despite dissatisfaction from within his party and questions about his electability.
Phillips’s last-minute entry follows months of successful efforts by Biden’s team to remove obstacles to the president’s renomination. White House aides oversaw a reshuffling of the first nominating states last year, demoting both Iowa and New Hampshire, where Biden placed fourth and fifth in 2020. They signed up many of his highest-profile rivals, including Democratic governors and senators, to a surrogate operation that has made them public champions of Biden’s reelection.
The Democratic National Committee also marginalized the early announced rivals for the nomination, author Marianne Williamson and Kennedy, refusing to entertain primary debates or to give them a platform on which to run. Kennedy announced in October that he would run as an independent, a relief for Biden aides, a move that will now force him to spend much of the next few months trying to arrange state ballot access.
All of this has been accomplished despite Biden’s historically alarming polling within the Democratic Party. A CNN poll in September found that 67 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they wanted a different candidate as the party’s nominee. Sixty percent of the same group said they were seriously concerned about his ability to win the 2024 election if chosen as the nominee.
Phillips, 54, said such numbers show how Democratic voters are seeking an alternative to the incumbent. He had hinted about this run, first suggesting in August that he wasn’t planning on running at that time but thought Biden should step aside for some Democratic star, naming moderate Democratic governors as alternatives.
“I’m representing what I believe to be the majority of the country that wants to turn the page,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Tired of the meanness and the fearmongering of Donald Trump. I would like to see Joe Biden, a wonderful and remarkable man, pass the torch, cement this extraordinary legacy.”
In a recent signal of the pending campaign, Phillips stepped down from his leadership role as the co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, citing how his “convictions relative to the 2024 presidential race are incongruent with the majority of [his] caucus.”
Some Democrats have agreed with Phillips, arguing it is better for the party to have a real debate over Biden’s reelection now, even if the time is rapidly dwindling. They have raised concerns that third-party contenders, like Kennedy and West, or a possible moderate ticket by the group No Labels, could undermine Biden in a general election. Meanwhile, Biden’s team has long thought that the Democratic doubts about Biden will dissipate once it becomes clear that Biden is the only alternative to returning former president Donald Trump to the White House. Trump has so far dominated the race for the GOP nomination.
“The idea that this should not be aired out and should be discussed in hushed tones is ludicrous,” said James Carville, a former political adviser to President Bill Clinton. “This needs to be discussed.”
But Phillips has already missed the Nevada filing deadline and will have to follow his New Hampshire performance with a contest against Biden in South Carolina, a state the president credits with setting him on the path to the nomination. Phillips’s national name identification, unlike Kennedy’s, is negligible. And he has a long history of supporting Biden.
“I’m so grateful America elected Joe Biden to be our president,” Phillips posted on Twitter, now called X, after Biden gave his first joint address to Congress.
Phillips has voted consistently with Biden, and it remains unclear what his message would be to voters about how he distinguishes himself from his party’s leader.
Phillips’s entry into the race will come only days after the Biden campaign officially informed the New Hampshire Democratic Party the president will not submit his name to appear on the state’s primary ballot.
In a letter to the state party on Tuesday, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, said Biden was “obligated” to comply with DNC rules and the national party urged Democratic campaigns not to file for New Hampshire’s ballot because the state is holding a primary outside the order approved by the DNC.
Even without Biden’s name on the ballot, many Democrats still expect the president will still win the unsanctioned primary as a write-in candidate.
“The reality is that Joe Biden will win the New Hampshire First-in-the-Nation Primary in January, win renomination in Chicago and will be re-elected next November,” Ray Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said in a statement. “New Hampshire voters know and trust Joe Biden, that’s why he is leading Trump in New Hampshire by double digits.”
Some Democratic strategists predict Phillips would struggle to be recognized by voters outside of Minnesota, who probably don’t know the businessman who formerly was the president and CEO of his family’s distilling business, which includes brands such as UV Vodka, and ran Talenti Gelato. In 2018, he won his first political office and flipped Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, which had been a GOP stronghold. But outside of Washington and the suburbs of the Twin Cities, Phillips has gone unrecognized.
His financial fortune could be useful for him, as most Democratic donors are tied to Biden. Phillips has $20.5 million to $70 million in assets, according to last year’s disclosure report.
Rebecca Pearcey, political director and senior adviser for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, said his campaign doesn’t merit much attention from the Biden-Harris team. As much as Phillips talks about Biden’s age, he has little influence to change the minds of voters about America’s oldest president.
“We all know how old Biden is,” she said. “I don’t think a 2.5-term congressman who is probably not actually known outside his district is the challenge that Biden would need in order to close this nomination.”
Phillips also would not be able to match the advanced infrastructure of Democratic support for Biden’s bid on a local, state and federal level. While Biden’s campaign itself has a relatively small but growing staff, the DNC has ballooned in size and provides fundraising, organizing and volunteer support for the Biden operation in conjunction with every state’s Democratic Party.
Pearcey said there are better ways for Phillips to talk about the Democratic agenda than “creating his own agenda with no name and his bus tour in New Hampshire and going on this delusional run against an entire institution that has 57 states and territories set up with Biden-Harris staff, volunteers and the DNC.”
“It’s beyond me how someone wakes up and is like, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” she added.
Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican political strategist, is advising Phillips’s campaign and is intimately involved in Friday’s launch, according to two people familiar with the campaign. Schmidt worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain before disavowing Trump and his party, and helped former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz explore a 2020 presidential run.
Like other Democratic strategists, Joe Trippi, a senior adviser for the Lincoln Project, a centrist PAC, said that he would have advised Phillips to stay out of the race.
Trippi, who managed the unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign of long shot candidate Howard Dean, said there are plenty of other instances of candidates who have attempted to run as an insurgent to their own party’s establishment. But Phillips has even those who have supported those previous runs scratching their heads.
“This entry has to be among the most clueless I’ve ever seen,” Trippi said.
Democrats close to Phillips expressed their own frustration as well.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), who came to Congress the same year as Phillips and has worked closely with him, called his presidential ambitions “perplexing.” But she was quick to add that she also didn’t see Phillips as much of a threat to Biden, whom she has endorsed and expects to win her divided suburban Philadelphia district.
“I don’t have a lot of concerns, to be honest,” she said. “I believe the Biden campaign is preparing to be the nominee. I believe that this is a distraction, and one that will likely be a relatively short-lived one. We need to be unified, and we need to be focused.”
Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said he is “highly disappointed” by Phillips’s presidential run. Martin said he hasn’t talked to Phillips in months and still hasn’t received any communication from him about his planned run.
“As someone who worked really hard to get him elected in the first place and helped recruit him to run, it’s frustrating that he’s willing to blow all of his political capital on a wild goose chase,” he said.
And as evidence of Phillips’s long shot bid: Next week, Biden plans to travel to Minnesota for a campaign fundraiser, at which many of Phillips’s donors are expected to be in attendance, according to a person familiar with the event.
Ence Morse contributed to this report.