WASHINGTON — The photo of a slightly dejected and deeply pensive U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips perched on the back of his “Government Repair Truck,” at a hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire, said a lot about the congressman’s campaign for the White House.
Phillips had invited voters to have coffee with him that Jan. 9 morning, but the only ones who showed up were a few reporters, noted the caption on the CBS News photo. “Sometimes, if you build it, they don’t come,” Phillips told those reporters.
The Minnesota Democrat, in his third term in the House, has astounded and angered many in his party with his primary challenge to President Joe Biden, 81, whom Phillips believes is too old and unable to beat former President Trump a second time.
The success or failure of that insurgent campaign may be determined Tuesday when New Hampshire will hold its primary election and continue its “first in the nation” tradition. However, that primary has not been sanctioned by Biden or the Democratic National Committee because they want a more racially diverse state, South Carolina, to be the first. So, Biden’s name won’t be on the ballot.
Even so, there’s been a well-funded, vigorous write-in campaign for Biden and Phillips will have to win substantial support, even if it’s short of 51% of the vote, to claim any kind of victory.
An ‘eternal optimist’
A few days after Phillips’ unsuccessful offer of coffee and conversation in Manchester, there was a completely different scene when former presidential candidate Andrew Yang headlined a well-attended campaign event last Thursday at a hotel in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Saying they bonded over common ideas for campaign finance reform, Yang endorsed Phillips and complimented the candidate’s effort to find a younger candidate to represent the Democratic Party in 2024.
“Dean has the potential to be the most transformative political figure of all time,” Yang said.
Phillips had tried to reach out to several Democrats, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to urge them to run against Biden. But he said his efforts were unsuccessful.
“Some of these folks refused to even take his calls,” Yang said.
Since no one stepped up to challenge Biden, Phillips decided to do so himself.
He said he has been well-received in New Hampshire among Democrats, independents and even Republican voters who often gave him “high fives” as he visited schools, diners, senior centers and other places to satisfy the requirement of voters in the state who demand face-to-face interactions with presidential candidates.
“The only people who haven’t been that kind are Democratic elected officials,” he said.
But there are signs Phillips may not have the kind of support in New Hampshire he thinks he has.
A University of New Hampshire/CNN poll released Jan. 9 showed Biden with the support of 69% of likely primary voters in the state, while Phillips had 7%.
Best-selling author of self-help books Marianne Williamson, who is also on the ballot, was the favored candidate of 6% of those polled.
Still, Phillips considers himself an “eternal optimist.”
In an interview with NBC News on Friday, Phillips invoked another Minnesota insurgent: Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968 drew 42% of the vote in New Hampshire, a result that prompted President Lyndon Johnson to drop out of the race.
Phillips said he would be satisfied with a much lower percentage of the vote than McCarthy received. “If we’re in the20s, that would be extraordinary,” he said.
“We’re going to surprise (people) in New Hampshire,” Phillips said in an email to MinnPost. “Most of the country hasn’t yet tuned into the Democratic primary, and we expect to do well enough to make the establishment pay attention to the people not satisfied with coronation over competition.”
Even so, Phillips suggested over the weekend that he would be open to running as a third-party candidate under the centrist No Labels banner, telling The New York Times he would only consider it if a rematch between Biden and Trump “shows Joe Biden is almost certain to lose.”
‘The quiet part out loud’
Less than three months from its inception, the Phillips campaign has had its share of controversies.
The latest was sparked by the removal of the promotion of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” on his campaign website after hedge fund investor Bill Ackman — who has criticized Phillips’ DEI stance — pledged $1 million to the candidate’s super PAC.
Phillips has also been criticized for courting campaign money from the AI industry and hosting phone calls with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who has also donated to the candidate’s super PAC.
His campaign recently added an AI plank that says “we must deploy AI in government operations, weather forecasting, tax return speeds, legislation summaries, public healthcare predictions — wherever we can make an impact and improve outcomes.”
And when Phillips told the crowd at the Hanover hotel that “we’ve all seen the decline” of Biden, he received a very tepid response.
“I say the quiet part out loud,” he said.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said Phillips could win 100 percent of the vote on Tuesday and still not have any momentum toward the nomination of his party.
“However, if he won a majority of the vote here — or at least more votes than Biden — Democrats and the media would hit the alarm bell about Biden’s viability in 2024. Which, to my mind, is the whole point for Phillips,” Scala said.
David Schultz, a professor of political science and legal studies at Hamline University, said Phillips could make waves in New Hampshire if he has convinced a lot of independent voters to support him.
Phillips says his campaign platform has something for everyone. Progressives will like his “Medicare for all” plan and his ideas to end homelessness, he said, while Republicans might embrace his push for more funding for police and tighter border security.
Schultz said Phillips’ goal on Tuesday should be to “wound Biden badly in New Hampshire so that either Biden decides ‘I’m going to dismantle my campaign,’” or the president is seen as weak enough to encourage another Democrat to enter the race.
In any case, the contest between Biden and Phillips on Tuesday is expected to be overshadowed by the bitter GOP primary that will also be held that day.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is battling to overtake former President Donald Trump now that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has dropped out of the race. DeSantis suspended his campaign Sunday and threw his support behind Trump.
Radelat is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.
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