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Why Dean Phillips, an Obscure Democratic Congressman, Is Running Against Joe Biden

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Updated: | Originally published:

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips isn’t yet a household name—but he hopes to become one.

The 54-year-old multimillionaire launched a long-shot primary challenge to President Joe Biden on Friday. The challenge does not appear to be coming from Biden’s right or left. Instead, it’s centered around the 80-year-old President’s age.

After all, there is little policy daylight between the two men. According to FiveThirtyEight, as of the beginning of this year, Phillips’ votes had been in line with Biden’s positions 100% of the time. But Phillips has spent months publicly urging Biden to not run for another term, asserting that he is not well-positioned to defeat Donald Trump a second time. 

"I think he's a man of decency, of good principle, of compassion, of empathy, and of strength,” Phillips said in a July radio interview during which he was asked if Biden should run. “But to answer your question directly, which I know is quite rare, uh no, I don't. I think the country would be well served by a new generation of compelling, well-prepared, dynamic Democrats to step up."

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Phillips, a businessman who once ran the gelato company Talenti, has represented the suburbs of Minneapolis since 2019 after ousting a Republican in the 2018 midterms. Since then, he has served as a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. This month, he stepped down from a position in House leadership after serving as the co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, a move that was widely viewed as laying the groundwork for Phillips to challenge the leader of his own party. 

Phillips made it official on Friday, delivering a speech in New Hampshire on the filing deadline for the state’s primary. Biden will not be on the primary ballot in the Granite State, since the state is holding the first primary in the country against the guidance of the Democratic National Committee. That may provide an opportunity for Phillips—or the other prominent Democrat in the race, Marianne Williamson—to perform well in the state, but he may not secure any delegates from the state’s unsanctioned primary.

Polls have shown that a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden to run in 2024, with the bulk of them indicating that they’re concerned about his age. But despite their hesitation about the President, voters have not coalesced around an alternative, and Biden’s nomination seems inevitable as the vast majority of elected Democrats, major donors, and party operatives have fallen in line behind him.

Read more: The Inside Story of How Biden Cleared the Field for His Re-Election Bid

Even as he suggests Biden is not the person most fit for the job, Phillips has had nothing but good things to say about the President in recent weeks. 

In his September newsletter to constituents, Phillips praised Biden as “a remarkable man who saved America, has presided over a remarkably resilient economy, and signed into law some of the most consequential legislation of our lifetimes.”

When Biden delivered a primetime address last week, Phillips wrote in a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, “President Biden issued an outstanding speech this evening, making a strong case for why we must support Ukraine, Israel, and all who seek self-determination, security, and peace. That’s what America does.”

In his announcement speech Friday, Phillips said he was running “not in opposition to President Biden,” but stressed that he thinks he’s the candidate who can win in 2024 and that it’s “time for the torch to be passed to a new generation of American leaders.” He talked about the struggles of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, gun violence, chaos at the border, and the billions spent sending soldiers abroad, but did not directly tie those problems to the incumbent.

“We appreciate the congressman’s almost 100% support of this president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters when asked about Phillips’ potential candidacy on Tuesday.

It isn’t the first time Phillips has gone out on a limb to promote generational change. In April, he was one of two House Democratic lawmakers who suggested California Senator Dianne Feinstein resign after a prolonged absence from D.C., telling TIME that he felt the octogenarian was lacking the ability to serve and that he “surely would be saying this about men in the same circumstance.”

The New York Times reported in late July that Phillips was considering a bid, though he did not announce anything definite at the time, and appeared even recently to be unsure that he would go through with it. In his September newsletter, Phillips urged Cornel West and other potential third-party candidates to run against Biden directly in the Democratic primary. He speculated about electing the first female president. And he implied that he was not in the running, writing, “While I’m not well positioned to run in 2024, there are many compelling candidates Democrats could elevate if, and only if, President Biden cements his legacy and passes the torch.”

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