WASHINGTON – Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat who represents the western suburbs of the Twin Cities in Congress, is running for reelection on optimism.
His campaign website declares that “Optimism is change,” and he told MinnPost that “optimism is as contagious as fear.”
To Phillips, 53, serving in Congress is more than about passing legislation. It’s also about values and character, he said.
“Congress can’t legislate compassion, respect or civility, but Congress can model that behavior,” Phillips said.
The focus on character is one of the few things Phillips shares with his GOP challenger, 20-year Navy veteran Tom Weiler, who — like Phillips when he first ran for Congress in 2018 — has never served in public office. Weiler said he was attracted to politics by what he views as “a lack of leadership in elected officials.” But both candidates have differing definitions of character.
In fact, the race for the 3rd District congressional seat is a contest between two very different personalities and ideologies. District voters have been given a choice of deep contrasts.
Far from embracing Phillips’ optimism, Weiler, 44, is focusing on what he views as the nation’s worsening problems and running on issues that are at the center of many Republican campaigns — crime and the economy. With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, Republicans like Weiler are blaming Democrats for the nation’s ills and hoping voter discontent boosts their party in November’s mid-term elections.
Weiler said he was serving on an aircraft carrier overseas in the summer of 2020 and watched what he called “riots,” the social unrest set off by the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. Having grown up in the 3rd Congressional District, Weiler said the demonstrations he witnessed onscreen prompted him to challenge Phillips.
So the Eden Prairie native retired from the Navy and moved back home to Minnesota expressly to run for Congress. He lives in Plymouth with his wife, Cynthia, and his 5-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
The race is set against a somewhat chaotic political backdrop. While analysts are calling the 3rd District “safe Democratic,” and Phillips handily beat Republican opponents in his first and second race to represent the district, Democrats are on the defensive in this campaign season.
President Biden’s unpopularity, concerns about the economy — and a sharp rise in inflation — as well as historic losses the party in the White House suffers in midterms, has made many Democrats in so-called “safe” districts wary. And the 3rd District has some recessive GOP DNA, having been represented by Republicans for decades before Phillips won the seat.
Republicans need to flip only five Houses seats to win control of the chamber in November. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he’s confident Republicans will flip dozens.
So Phillips is touting his moderate credentials. He’s a member of the New Democrats, a group of Democrats who are culturally liberal but more conservative on economic issues. Phillips is also highlighting his role in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of moderate Democrats and Republicans.
“I represent a district that is moderate in its perspective,” Phillips said.
Still, Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections, said Phillips’ race is not competitive.
“Joe Biden won it by 20 percentage points,” Rubashkin said. “That puts it out of the reach of Republicans.”
But he also said Phillips was in the “most difficult cycle yet” of his political career and that his rival, Weiler, has “a credible profile.”
Rubashkin also said that “Democrats do have an issue with crime,” in these midterms.
“And you never want to be the guy who didn’t take their race seriously,” he said.
‘Palpable’ voter concerns
Despite his optimism, Phillips is concerned with the fierce GOP attacks that blame Democrats for the spike in inflation, gas prices and crime.
He recently participated in a news conference in the U.S. Capitol with some of the most vulnerable House Democrats. The purpose of the event was to promote the Lower Food and Fuel Cost Act, legislation that would allow the year-round sale of E15, an ethanol blend that lowers the average cost of fuel by as much as 40 cents per gallon.
Currently, under the Clean Air Act, E15 cannot be sold in summer because it easily evaporates in warm weather, possibly worsening air pollution. Its Democratic sponsors also said the bill would help address supply chain problems, lower the cost of food and strengthen the food supply chain.
At that press conference, Phillips offered an “invitation to Republican colleagues who have complained on television every night and on social media” about inflation without offering solutions.
“I haven’t seen a proposal from the other side of the aisle … just a lot of complaining,” Phillips said. “If we’re not willing to work together, my goodness, then we will fail.”
Phillips has also sponsored a bill that would increase federal funding to local police departments and supports other like-minded measures.
And despite his optimism, Phillips concedes there are voter concerns.
“People are worried; it’s palpable,” he said.
Another door opens
Phillips, a former gelato company owner, said he decided to run for office on the morning after the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
“I saw my daughters’ horror and fear,” he said. “I promised I would do something.”
While Phillips is a scion of a wealthy family that made its riches in commerce and industry, Weiler was a career Navy officer, a submariner in line to command his own ship when he received the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
“It was clear that I had plateaued in the Navy,” Weiler said. “But I still had a very strong desire to serve the country. One door shuts and another door opens.”
Weiler had had an introduction to Congress as the military liaison to Rep. Rob Witmann, R-Va., a leader of the congressional Submarine Caucus.
Working in Wittman’s congressional office, Weiler determined “there’s a large potential to do a lot of good for society,” as a member of Congress.
So he’s out on the campaign trail, hitting Phillips for his support of the George Floyd Policing Act — legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate that would implement police reforms — and for voting for some of the COVID-19 relief bills that Weiler says has helped boost inflation.
He’s also staked out a very conservative position on abortion, saying he’s “pro-life from conception to a natural death.”
As far as exceptions for rape, incest or the life of a mother, Weiler said he supports the Supreme Court’s decision to leave those options to individual states.
“Those issues are part of the give and take the state legislature will look at,” he said.
As far as a Trump endorsement, Weiler said he doesn’t need it.
“It’s something I’m not concerned with one way or the other,” he said.
Weiler has done well in fundraising for a first-time challenger. At the end of the first quarter of this year, the Republican had raised more than $191,000, although $34,500 was from a personal loan to his campaign.
Meanwhile, Phillips reported raising nearly $1.4 million as of the end of April.
Weiler said he’s not worried about the disparity in fundraising. But he’d appreciate help from the National Republican Congressional Committee, headed by Emmer. The NRCC has placed Weiler on its “On the Radar” list, meaning if Weiler improves in fundraising or makes the race more competitive in any other way, he’d be eligible for campaign help, donations and third-party television ads from the NRCC.
For his part, Phillips is riding through the district with his “Government Repair Truck,” making women’s reproductive rights and gun violence his main campaign issues. But in an upbeat, optimistic way.
“Our campaign has a very unique ethos of joy and participation,” he said.
Ana Radelat wrote this story. It originally appeared July 11 on MinnPost.com.
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