Who is Dean Phillips, Biden’s new Democratic primary challenger?

“Long shot” may be too weak a description.

On Friday, third-term Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips announced that he will be challenging President Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination — a quest that at least one strategist has described as delusional,” echoing widespread sentiment within the party.

Yet Phillips — a centrist former CEO and one of the wealthiest members of Congress — sounded undaunted at his launch event in the early primary state of New Hampshire, where he emphasized that he’s primarying Biden for pragmatic reasons.

“I am running for the Democratic nomination … not in opposition to our current president, who has my appreciation and gratitude, [but] rather with two core convictions,” said Phillips, 54, according to his prepared remarks. “One, I am a Democratic candidate who can win the 2024 general election. And two, it’s time for the torch to be passed to a new generation of American leaders.”

Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat from Minnesota, in the halls of Congress on Nov. 30, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat from Minnesota, in the halls of Congress on Nov. 30, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Why Phillips is primarying the president

Phillips’s quixotic bid comes as polls show the president with a commanding lead among potential Democratic primary voters. The latest Yahoo News/YouGov survey pegged Biden’s support at 68% compared to just 6% for his sole challenger at the time, author Marianne Williamson.

But in recent interviews, Phillips has cited other, less flattering data points when discussing his intentions to enter the race. The president’s approval rating is stubbornly low: Just 39% of Americans approve of his performance, according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll, while 54% disapprove.

The number who say Biden, 80, is not fit to serve another serve term (57%) is more than twice as high as the number who say he is fit (27%).

More than three-quarters (77%) — including two-thirds (66%) of Democratic voters — consider the president’s age to be either a big or a small problem.

And in a head-to-head matchup with former President Donald Trump — who has been criminally indicted four times this year — Biden is now either tied or trailing slightly.

As a result, Phillips has repeatedly said, Democratic primary voters deserve a conversation about who represents their best chance of keeping the White House — rather than a mere coronation.

“These are not numbers that you can massage,” Phillips recently told the Atlantic. “Look, just because he’s old, that’s not a disqualifier. But being old, in decline, and having numbers that are clearly moving in the wrong direction? It’s getting to red-alert kind of stuff.”

“My grave concern,” he added, “is I just don’t think President Biden will beat Donald Trump next November.”

President Biden during a news conference at the White House.
President Biden during a news conference at the White House on Oct. 25. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

How Democrats are taking the news

Phillips insists that he spent months trying to recruit someone else to challenge Biden; in the past, he’s publicly floated the names of moderate Democratic governors such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania.

But for understandable reasons — minuscule odds of success combined with a massive risk of pariahhood — no one took Phillips up on the offer, despite what he characterizes as pervasive private agreement among Democrats about Biden’s vulnerabilities. So Phillips finally volunteered himself.

“Someone had to do this,” he told the Atlantic. “It just was so self-evident.”

Publicly, at least, most Democrats seem to disagree, arguing that while Phillips won’t beat Biden, he could weaken him — and help elect Trump next November.

“This entry has to be among the most clueless I’ve ever seen,” strategist Joe Trippi told the Washington Post.

But at least one Democrat is applauding Phillips’s decision.

“The idea that this should not be aired out and should be discussed in hushed tones is ludicrous,” James Carville, who served as a political adviser to former President Bill Clinton, said in the same Washington Post story. “This needs to be discussed.”

Phillips makes his case

Phillips will probably be a more serious contender than Williamson. He built his substantial fortune — estimated at $20.5 million to $70 million, according to last year’s congressional disclosure report — as the former president and CEO of his family’s distilling business and chairman of Talenti Gelato.

In 2018, Phillips managed to beat a Republican incumbent and flip Minnesota’s Third Congressional District. On Capitol Hill, he’s been an active member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Until now, Phillips has also been a strong supporter of Biden, consistently voting with him in Congress, and he is unlikely to attack the president with much ferocity.

But in New Hampshire Friday, the Minnesotan did try to distance himself from the president on key policy issues, including “high federal deficits, slow wage growth, inflation, tax rates that are too low for corporations and the wealthy, gun violence and spiraling healthcare costs,” according to Politico.

And on three hot-button topics — border security, crime and foreign aid — Phillips managed to sound more like a MAGA Republican than a Biden Democrat. “Chaos at our border and in our cities is growing, while our commitment to countering it is receding,” he said. “We’ve spent billions sending our soldiers to fight in foreign lands and still haven’t fixed the failures in Flint.”

It remains to be seen whether Phillips can get more traction than other Biden challengers. (The far more familiar Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently abandoned his Democratic primary bid in frustration to run as an independent.) Phillips has already missed the filing deadline for the Nevada caucuses, and Biden is especially strong in the first primary state of South Carolina.

But because New Hampshire is refusing to delay its vote until after South Carolina's, the president’s name will not appear on the ballot there — giving Phillips an opportunity to put at least a few points on the board before the contest begins in earnest.