Democrats Warn Rep. Dean Phillips Against Joe Biden Primary Challenge

WASHINGTON — Democrats are urging Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) not to launch a primary bid against President Joe Biden, warning that it would only play into the hands of hopelessly divided congressional Republicans and their 2024 front-runner, Donald Trump. 

“He ought to go home to Minnesota,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said of Phillips, who is reportedly planning a 2024 announcement in New Hampshire this week. 

“We’ve got to beat Trump,” added Welch, who served in the House with Phillips from 2018 to 2022. “It’s a distraction and he’s going to be hounding on the president not because of policies — the Democrats support the policies and accomplishments of Biden — so he’s going to try to unravel that. It’s not helpful.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a top progressive who ran against Biden in the 2020 presidential primary, said flatly that Phillips shouldn’t jump into the race.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Warren told HuffPost. “I’m all for President Biden getting reelected. He has delivered for America’s middle class and he’s going to win.”

The disdain for Phillips’ potential challenge to Biden is rooted in both Democratic leaders’ united public posture behind Biden, who polls show is in a razor-thin race with Trump, and in a belief Phillips is mostly embarking on a run to promote himself, rather than out of any real chance of toppling Biden. 

Another Senate Democrat who asked for anonymity to speak frankly of Phillips said: “What he’s doing is irrelevant to the president’s campaign and makes him seem irrelevant too.”

Plans are reportedly underway for a presidential announcement by Phillips in the early nominating state of New Hampshire this Friday, though sources told The Wall Street Journal that the congressman may yet change his mind. A campaign bus with “Dean Phillips for President” logos was spotted along an Ohio freeway on Tuesday, seemingly confirming speculation that he will enter the race.

Phillips’ spokesperson Taylor Deacon declined to comment.

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) isn't getting much love from his party after announcing plans to primary President Joe Biden.
Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) isn't getting much love from his party after announcing plans to primary President Joe Biden.

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) isn't getting much love from his party after announcing plans to primary President Joe Biden.

The 54-year-old moderate Democrat, who was elected to Congress in 2018, has been outspoken about the need for younger leadership in the Democratic Party. He has openly stated his belief that the 80-year-old Biden shouldn’t run for reelection and encouraged other potential candidates to run, breaking with the vast majority of his party.

Earlier this month, Phillips stepped down from his role in House Democratic leadership, amping up rumors he himself would launch a 2024 bid. “My convictions relative to the 2024 presidential race are incongruent with the majority of my caucus, and I felt it appropriate to step aside from elected leadership,” he said.

Congressional Democrats said they didn’t know why Phillips was flirting with challenging the incumbent president of his own party. Some suggested he was doing it simply for attention.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) quipped that “buses out of Minnesota get public attention,” making an apparent reference to anti-war Minnesota Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s unsuccessful primary bid against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) guessed the congressman would be running simply to get his “name in the headlines.”

Phillips’ Democratic colleagues in the House were just as unsupportive.

During a press conference, House Democratic Caucus chairman Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) was asked about a tweet by Phillips earlier in the day suggesting he would vote “present” if Republicans voted to elect Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) to be speaker. Phillips floated the idea that he would do this to help Emmer get elected, in exchange for promises of holding votes on certain policies.

Aguilar said nobody in Democratic leadership was discussing Phillips’ idea. Emmer later dropped out of the race anyway.

Asked specifically about Phillips launching a primary bid against Biden, Aguilar said with a smirk: “I’m sure that has nothing to do with the tweet he put out earlier today.”

“I think all of us have talked about the importance of reelecting, you know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. That’s what we’re focused on,” he said. “But, you know, people having ambitions and running for other things in this place is just kind of par for the course.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) called Phillips “a smart and talented member of House” but said he “dearly” hoped he “stays with us here in the House.”

He ought to go home to Minnesota.Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.)

Aside from Aguilar, other House Democratic leaders didn’t seem to want to talk about Phillips. Requests for comment from Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Democratic Whip Katherine Clark (Mass.) were not returned.

But one aide to a veteran House Democrat conveyed the annoyance felt among some Democrats who weren’t comfortable speaking as bluntly.

“A quixotic run from a third-term congressman who votes with the president 100% of the time, has little name recognition and touts a knock-off Trump slogan doesn’t really strike fear in anyone’s heart,” said this aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “Joe Biden is our nominee, period.”

Phillips’ decision to challenge Biden in the presidential primary has drawn him a primary challenger of his own in his congressional race. Democrat Ron Harris announced earlier this month that he is now running for Phillips’ House seat.

A primary challenge to Biden would likely be an extreme long shot, but it would serve as an embarrassing reminder of discontent within the Democratic Party regarding the president’s age. More than half Democratic voters are concerned about Biden’s age and his ability to win the 2024 election, according to a CNN poll conducted last month.

Still, it’s not just Democrats who have questions about the age of their leadership. Trump, at 77 years old, is steamrolling the 2024 GOP presidential race, and making verbal gaffes to match Biden’s slip-ups. He would be 78 if he takes office again in 2025.  

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to weigh in on Phillips’ presidential bid during Tuesday’s press briefing, saying she doesn’t get into electoral politics. But she did note one detail about the Minnesota Democrat’s record.

“We appreciate the congressman’s almost 100% support of this president as he’s moved forward with some really important key legislative priorities for the American people,” said Jean-Pierre.

Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.