U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) says President Joe Biden is too old to be the party’s nominee, he is putting the White House at risk, and Democrats are “sleepwalking” into another 2016. Polls show many Granite State Democrats agree.
But can Phillips, a virtual unknown in New Hampshire politics, turn that common viewpoint into votes in the First in the Nation primary? Or will he get nothing more than the Granite State version of “Minnesota Nice,” with Democrats politely dismissing his candidacy?
Phillips has decided to find out. His campaign bus was seen around New Hampshire Thursday, and he sent a text message inviting voters to join him at the State House “for this momentous event” when he files his declaration of candidacy. And while Biden tried to strip the Granite State of its front-of-the-line status, Phillips has embraced what he calls “the very important and sacred Democratic primary.”
Pundits have long speculated Biden’s attempt to end the First in the Nation primary would be enough to deliver a win in the Democratic primary to a serious challenger. However, New Hampshire polls have consistently shown Granite State Democrats are split on the importance of keeping their special primary status.
Perhaps more significant is a new Gallup poll released Thursday showing Biden’s approval rating tied with its all-time low of 37 percent. His support among Democrats is also at a record low of 75 percent. That is one reason some Democrats say privately a primary challenge is a good thing. If Biden isn’t up to another grueling campaign, better to find out before the Democratic National Convention in August.
Phillips, 54, is a moderate Democrat who won a suburban Minneapolis congressional district from a Republican in 2018. Before that, he was a successful businessman who ran a liquor business (Phillips peppermint schnapps) and turned Talenti into a successful gelato company that he sold to Unilever in 2014.
His father, Artie Pfefer, was killed serving in Vietnam when Phillips was just six months old.
Most significant is that Phillips is worth an estimated $77 million, giving him the resources to get his message to Granite State Democrats between now and the likely primary date of January 23. But will they listen?
State Rep. Steve Shurtleff (D-Penacook), a former speaker of the House, has been a longtime Biden supporter. But he told NHJournal he was unsure what he would do in the wake of the president’s New Hampshire snub.
“I haven’t made a final decision about whether I’ll be supporting Rep. Phillips or not. The only thing I can tell you is that I always have and always will support our first in the nation primary.”
Cullen Tiernan, political director for SEIU Local 1984, said he was “certainly open to hearing what Phillips has to say and appreciate anyone who makes it up here to New Hampshire.”
And North Country Democratic activist Ted Bosen said he would be happy to help Phillips meet Granite State voters.
“The fact that he believes, as I do, that it’s healthy to have a Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire — and he agrees we should retain our First in the Nation status — makes him more than welcome, in my opinion. The idea that the incumbent should be anointed should be abhorrent to every Democrat.”
That was a very different message from state party leaders who have decided to choke down Biden’s humiliating treatment and still champion his candidacy in the same primary he tried to kill.
Democratic state party Chairman Ray Buckley is declaring the president will still win the primary via a write-in effort, no matter what.
“Our phone is ringing off the hook by folks wanting to get involved in the write-in,” he told The Messenger.
Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen have pledged to work hard for a Biden victory in New Hampshire despite his high-profile diss of the two Democrats. Some critics have bemoaned the fact that the two senators refused to use their influence in a 51-49 U.S. Senate to push back against Biden’s assault on the Granite State primary. Buckley dismissed the notion of New Hampshire’s delegation confronting Biden in defense of the primary.
“It would be so out of character that I would probably be the most astonished person on Earth,” Buckley told Politico earlier this year.
Phillips is hardly an anti-Biden bomb thrower. He has voted with Biden 100 percent of the time on key issues and has limited his criticism to concerns about the president’s age and infirmity.
“I think the Third District is very representational of a majority of the country, which is, we don’t want to see Donald Trump become president; we wish there were alternatives to Joe Biden because we have concerns about him,” Phillips said.
On issues, New Hampshire Democrats and independent moderates will hear a lot they like. Phillips supports term limits and opposes Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare For All” approach to healthcare. In 2020, he endorsed fellow Minnesota moderate Sen. Amy Klobuchar for president.
And how is Phillips’ POTUS run playing back home? Ana Radelat, who covers politics for MinnPost.com, told the NHJournal podcast some Minnesota Democrats are angry — one state legislator said Phillips should resign from Congress — but most appear to be shrugging it off.
“People are kind of saying, ‘Let Dean be Dean.’ Let him do his thing. They don’t think it’s going to hurt the president,” Radelat said. “Others [in Washington, D.C.] have differing opinions. But in Minnesota, the thought is that this quixotic presidential bid won’t hurt Biden. He’ll flame out soon enough and disappear.”