In longshot bid for White House, Dean Phillips says he's trying to tell Democrats hard truths

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Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., addresses guests during a campaign stop on Oct. 31 in Manchester, N.H. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., addresses guests during a campaign stop on Oct. 31 in Manchester, N.H. (Charles Krupa/AP)

A few days after launching his longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dean Phillips held his first town hall meeting in Manchester. A rhythm and blues band kicked off the event, and Phillips' wife, Annalise Glick, sang a couple of numbers to warm up the small crowd.

When the moderate congressman from Minnesota took the stage, he launched right into his argument for challenging Biden. The president, Phillips said, is "perhaps the only Democrat who could lose to Donald Trump."

Phillips said he wants to bring a deeply fractured country back together, even as he divides his own party. His campaign against Biden, whom he repeatedly said he respects, is unwelcome by many fellow Democrats, but reflects growing concern in his party that the president's re-election effort is in trouble.

Citing a number of recent polls that show Trump ahead nationally and in key swing states, Phillips called a Biden loss in 2024 "likely."

Now serving his third term, Phillips, 54, is one of the wealthiest members of the U.S. House of Representatives. If the former businessman were to win the White House, Phillips pledges to appoint both Democrats and Republicans to his cabinet. In fact, he tapped a never-Trump Republican, who has since quit the GOP, to direct his campaign: Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.

Schmidt was the senior campaign adviser who chose Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate, a move he later said was a mistake. In more recent years, he co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

Schmidt said after three years of the Biden presidency, Trump remains an "existential threat to American democracy," yet establishment Democrats are "in denial" about the challenge facing Biden's re-election prospects.

It's no secret, Schmidt said, that "Donald Trump is 40 points ahead in the Republican primary, and in one poll, 9 points ahead of Joe Biden."

The Phillips campaign hopes to appeal to moderates from both parties — voters the congressman calls "the exhausted majority." He's pro-abortion rights, but says he understands why many people are not. He's a gun-owner who supports gun regulations. He's a Hubert Humphrey Democrat who says his party spends too much and needs to secure the border.

But in Manchester, Phillips' effort to meet people in the middle crashed in a heated exchange with a town hall attendee. Aton Chan, a 23-year-old woman, asked Phillips why he didn't back a cease-fire in Gaza to end the killing of innocent Palestinians. Phillips deflected, asking Chan a question in return: "How do you feel about the Israeli babies, the grandmothers and grandpas that were killed and put on Facebook?"

Chan said she was "completely empathetic," to the Israeli victims of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas but accused Phillips of ducking her question. "I'm talking about the 10,000 dead people in Gaza," she said.

The clash escalated. Chan became furious, and Phillips struggled to control the meeting. Ultimately, Chan was escorted out of the room, screaming, but not before another participant accused Phillips of gaslighting Chan and walked out.

It was an excruciatingly long and awkward moment for Phillips, who is basing his campaign on a promise to bring people with opposing views together.

Dean Phillips, Democratic presidential candidate, hosting his first town hall meeting in Manchester, N.H. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)
Dean Phillips, Democratic presidential candidate, hosting his first town hall meeting in Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 1. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

He did have supporters in the room, including former New Hampshire House Speaker Steve Shurtleff — who co-chaired Biden's 2020 campaign in the state.

"I'm concerned with the president's negatives," Shurtleff said, referring to one poll that found a majority of New Hampshire Democrats don't want Biden to run for a second term.

"They wish he'd step aside and pass the torch to the next generation," he said.

But Biden still has plenty of backers in New Hampshire, and some are worried Phillips' campaign will only weaken the president's chances in what is expected to be a close 2024 election.

"What Dean Phillips is doing is feeding the Republican narrative that Joe Biden can't win, that there's no enthusiasm," said Kathy Sullivan, a former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. She notes there's a long history of sitting presidents being hurt by primary challenges from within their own parties, from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.

Sullivan said if Phillips wants a Democrat to win the presidency in 2024, "The best thing for Mr. Phillips to do is pack his bags and go back to Minnesota."

But Phillips is taking advantage of a chance to get noticed in New Hampshire, thanks to the Democratic Party's dramatic decision to change its first primary state to South Carolina. The decision, which Biden supported, means the president won't appear on New Hampshire's primary ballot. Voters will have the option to write him in, but Biden's absence helps Phillips, giving him a sliver of a chance to win the primary or at least embarrass the president if he achieves a decent result.

Sullivan is leading the write-in campaign for Biden and said Phillips only hurts that effort. Other leading Democrats agree, including Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, who posted on X, formerly Twitter, that by launching a campaign in New Hampshire, Phillips is failing to respect the voters of South Carolina.

Clyburn is not alone in that view.

"It was Joe Biden's decision to make South Carolina first," said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic political strategist in South Carolina. "So, to buck that shows not only disrespect for Black voters — the most loyal and dedicated voter block in a generation — but also to the process."

At the town hall meeting in Manchester, Phillips rejected the accusation. He said speaking to white voters in New Hampshire is not disrespectful to Black voters in South Carolina any more than speaking to Black voters in South Carolina is disrespectful to Arab American voters in Michigan.

"This is the problem," Phillips said. "We are way too divided."

Phillips said he's not surprised or discouraged by the political headwinds his nascent campaign has already encountered. He contends he's trying to tell Democrats what they don't want to hear: that a large number of Americans are dreading a Biden-Trump rematch.

"People around the country are saying they do not want Donald Trump," Phillips said, "and they do not want President Biden."

This segment aired on November 8, 2023.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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