CONCORD, N.H. – Dean Phillips entered the New Hampshire primary with six hours and 22 minutes to spare, surrounded by reporters, joking when he could.
Asked for the $1000 filing fee, he said he’d “brought small coins.” Asked why — seriously, though — he was waging a challenge to President Joe Biden, he said he was there to “celebrate” a “man of extraordinary empathy,” by retiring him.
I’m the underdog, I’m the longshot, I’m at a massive disadvantage, and that’s why I love our country,” he told the crowd in the secretary of state’s office, as the Dean campaign bus and his vintage Government Repair Truck waited outside. The slogan “Make America Affordable Again,” briefly wrapped on the bus, had been removed; the candidate didn’t like the MAGA echo, and wanted to stay positive.
“My message isn’t age,” he added. “I work with 80-year olds who are plenty competent.”
Moments later, he remarked on just how long Biden had been around: “I think I was three years old when he became a United States senator.”
Phillips entered the race after pleading with better-known Democrats to read the polls and offer themselves up as a Biden alternative. When none did, he and anti-Trump ex-GOP strategist Steve Schmidt put together a New Hampshire-focused campaign — 119 town halls, endless access, no question out of bounds, and a first-day promise to put the state back in front of the Democratic calendar.
“I’m a Democrat who believes in tradition,” Phillips told NHJournal reporter Michael Graham.
The first hour of the campaign was light on policy — especially policy that separated Phillips from the president. Asked if he’d do anything differently than Biden in Gaza, he demurred: “I think this would be a terribly inappropriate time to comment,” he said, “during the war.” In remarks outside the state house, and to reporters inside, he said he’d secure the southern border and push back against anyone who said it was a race-baiting topic.
“For someone to accuse those who care about border security of being racist — I think those people are being inhumane,” he said, promising to represent the “exhausted majority” and open the White House to ordinary people.
Gathered to meet Phillips outside was a small group of voters — around two dozen, outnumbered by reporters, cameras, and the “Dean Team Road Crew” that blasted “Shake It Off” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” from a sound system and offered coffee from the government repair truck. The voters who’d come out for the show were overwhelmingly Democrats who agreed with the congressman’s tricky pitch: that Joe Biden was terrific, and had to go.
“I think Biden’s health is in serious question,” said Laura Miller, 58, who voted for Biden in both the 2020 election and primary. The potential for a Trump-Biden rematch made her “scared to death.” She knew “nothing” about Phillips, so she showed up.
If you looked at polling on Friday — or, really, any day this year — the Phillips pitch was compelling. Democratic primary voters worry about nominating the president again. They want an alternative, preferably one born after the end of World War II.
This week’s Gallup update found Biden’s approval rating among Democrats at 75%, the lowest level of his presidency, as left-leaning critics of Israel denounce him. The 2020 Biden coalition has already fractured, and in New Hampshire, where Biden ran fifth in the last primary and the party has since gone through a fight over ending its first-in-the-nation status, it wasn’t that robust to start with.
Few Democratic strategists wanted to work on Phillips’ race — at best they win the upset of the century, at worst they’re blamed for weakening the president — and when the Congressman cast around for staff, he pulled from a grassroots group, Step Aside Joe, that spent all year trying to find a Biden challenger.
“It can be done,” Step Aside Joe organizer Norman Solomon told Semafor. “A Democrat in Congress can have the courage to engage in a democratic process known as a primary campaign for the party’s presidential nomination.”
Right: Phillips is running because no other Democrat with an elected office wanted to do this. The contempt I found for the Minnesotan all week was remarkable. Minnesota Democrats think he’s embarrassing himself; Black Democrats think he’s insulting them; strategists who worked on the party’s House campaigns think he’s glib and vainglorious.
“There’s absolutely no desire for this to happen,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. “I like Dean. I think he’s a good member of Congress. I don’t understand why he’s doing this. It’s a short-term non-story.”
Phillips missed the filing deadline for Nevada’s primary, and representatives for the Iowa and South Carolina parties said that he had never reached out at all. New Hampshire offered any Biden challenger the best shot at an upset, because the president’s skipping it and not on the ballot — his supporters plan to write him in — and reporters won’t ignore the results just because the Democratic National Committee isn’t counting their delegates for breaking with their new calendar.
This weekend, Florida Democrats will hold their quadrennial convention and lay out their presidential ballot. Phillips, according to party chair Nikki Fried, had never contacted the party about getting on; Christale Spain, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that Phillips chose to “disregard” the most racially diverse early primary state “in favor of competing in a state that will offer zero delegates.”
That, said Spain, was “saying the quiet part out loud” about Phillips’ potential constituency. “He’s an unserious candidate who doesn’t appear to care about what our majority Black Democratic electorate has to say.”
Long before this, Phillips had annoyed other Democrats by criticizing its strategy to tie Republicans to their most radical members. In 2021, he was among the Problem Solvers who broke the bipartisan infrastructure act from Build Back Better; in 2022, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent to help a MAGA candidate primary defeat Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer, who’d voted to impeach Trump, Phillips called it “dishonorable” and “dangerous.”
“It’s never been about the Democratic Party or the larger mission,” said Tim Persico, the executive director for the DCCC in that cycle. “It’s always been about Dean Phillips.”
In the run-up to this decision, Phillips wasn’t very specific about where he parted with Biden; he launched the campaign with no platform. Is that a problem? The Democrats who don’t want Biden to run for ideological reasons are vastly outnumbered by the ones who think he’s simply too old to do this again.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s approach to New Hampshire was to seek out independents and conservatives who might cross over, emphasizing his most anti-left views — an absolute disaster that tanked his numbers with Democrats and convinced him to leave the party. The test for Biden this time will be how he looks against a relatively like-minded challenger who just happens to be more than a quarter-century younger.
The View From Other Primary Challengers
The two other Democrats running against Biden welcomed Phillips into the race, agreeing with his premise that a new nominee would probably out-perform the president.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll remain the Democrats’ best bet to defeat Donald Trump in 2024, but I welcome Dean Phillips into the mix so voters can hash that out for themselves,” Marianne Williamson told Semafor. “Democracy is a good thing, and anyone who feels moved to run should run. The American people should hear from any candidate with credible ideas on how to defeat fascism, end a chapter of our history riddled with economic injustice, and begin a new era of possibility for the average American.”
Cenk Uygur said he was “very happy” to see Phillips enter the race, and hoped that “a dozen Democratic governors follow him.” He’d told Semafor last week that he wanted to win — and, in the process, set a precedent that naturalized citizens could run for president — but expected to see more Democrats enter the race if he got traction.
“Mr. 37% has got to be tested in the primaries before Democratic voters become convinced he’s our strongest fighter,” said Uygur, referring to the Gallup poll. “And come on, does anyone believe that? So, would Dean Phillips do better than Biden against Trump? Who wouldn’t?”
- For ABC News, Brittany Shepherd surveys the Black Democrats who find the Phillips campaign insulting; Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson called it “divisive” and “disrespectful to a large population and support base for the Democratic Party.”
- In the Atlantic, Tim Alberta spends some quality time with Phillips and strategist Steve Schmidt, explaining their strategy: After a win in New Hampshire, the “slingshot of coverage would be forceful enough to make Phillips competitive in South Carolina, then Michigan.”