CONCORD, N.H. — Dean Phillips’s presidential campaign slogan is “Everyone’s invited.” But when he showed up for his first official act as a candidate, filing to run in New Hampshire, mostly press showed up.
Phillips, who is hoping to take on President Biden as the clear front-runner for the Democratic primary, acknowledged he has a way to go to convince people they should vote for him — or to even introduce himself.
“I’m the underdog. I’m the long shot,” he told reporters at the New Hampshire State House. “And that’s why I love this country.”
Many of the voters who showed up to meet him outside the State House on Friday had only just learned of his existence.
Boris Hadshi, a Democrat, learned of Phillips’s campaign from another Democrat the night before. He searched online for the Minnesota businessman and showed up with his wife and son “out of curiosity.” Hadshi, who so far plans to write in his 2020 pick of former mayor Pete Buttigieg, said he wasn’t sold on voting for Phillips. Looking out across the small crowd of supporters and media gathered near Phillips’s bus, he recalled the standing-room-only audience that had showed up to see Buttigieg.
“You get the sense there wasn’t more thought,” he said.
Phillips’s launch kicked off in a sort of haphazard fashion: His campaign video that posted the night before was shortly after taken down; his presidential campaign account on X, formerly known as Twitter, was temporarily suspended; and he arrived at the official event outside the State House over an hour late.
He then began introducing himself to people along Main Street. Concord resident June Latti walked by his bus and called her politically involved daughter to ask who Phillips was. When she learned he was a Democrat, she decided he had her vote. “We need a young man,” said Latti, 80.
Phillips hugged her when she told him she would vote for him. He then walked to a pub across the street where Linda Rinaldi, who was out to lunch with her friend Julie Hughes, recognized him.
“Hi, Dean,” she greeted. Phillips seemed taken aback. “Can I have a high five since you know my name?” he asked.
Rinaldi said she learned of Phillips the week before when she saw an article that said he was considering running. She decided to vote for him because she liked that he had a positive message, she said. Meanwhile, her companion Hughes wasn’t as sure. She had just heard of Phillips that morning and wanted to do more research.
Phillips, 54, has centered his campaign on a pitch of being a fresher alternative to voters who have tired of Biden, 80, whom Phillips has said should “pass the torch” to a new generation. Biden is the oldest president in history, prompting a rebuke from Phillips that most other elected Democrats will only express in hushed tones.
But Phillips’s campaign faces several tall hurdles at its outset and is unlikely to pose any substantial challenge to Biden’s nomination prospects, according to Democratic strategists.
In his launch video, Phillips explained he was announcing his candidacy in New Hampshire. The longtime first-in-the-nation Democratic primary state holds diminished significance for the Democratic nominating process under a revamped primary calendar, but it is one he said matters to him as someone who went to camp there and has held historic importance.
“That’s why I’m back as a candidate for president in the place where we begin, where presidential candidates stand before you, the voters, walk through the snow, listen to your dreams, hear your concerns, and most of all discuss how we are going to work together to move to the future,” Phillips said. “We’ve got some challenges, that’s for sure. We’re going to repair this economy, and we’re going to repair America.”
On Friday, Phillips gave a speech in front of the New Hampshire State House, where candidates traditionally file for the presidential primary. The announcement came a day after a Gallup poll found Biden’s approval rating had dropped to 37 percent, down 11 percentage points among voters in his own party, a low for Biden among Democrats.
Phillips did spend a considerable part of his first day on the trail praising his opponent. He called Biden “a man of extraordinary empathy,” recalling an instance when Biden, as vice president, visited his home and spent time eating ice cream with the catering staff. When asked about economic policies he would implement, he named ideas like a child tax credit that Biden had worked on. But, he said, if Biden were the nominee, Phillips believed Biden would lose.
New Hampshire’s determination to stay ahead of South Carolina, which Democrats have determined should kick off the process next year, has put it at odds with the Democratic National Committee plan and at risk of losing its delegates. Biden’s name will not appear on the New Hampshire ballot, so voters will have to write his name to cast a ballot for him.
Under the DNC’s calendar, the first Democratic primary will be held in South Carolina on Feb. 3, followed by contests in New Hampshire and Nevada.
Phillips, who represents a congressional district encompassing many of the suburbs in the western half of the Twin Cities metro area, has already missed the Nevada filing deadline, and so won’t be able to pick up any of those crucial delegates. South Carolina, a state Biden credits with setting him on the path to the nomination in 2020, will be a challenge. Phillips also has little national name identification outside of Washington and his district. And he has a long history of supporting Biden.
“I’m so grateful America elected Joe Biden to be our president,” Phillips posted on Twitter after Biden gave his first joint address to Congress.
Phillips has voted consistently with Biden, and it remains unclear what his message would be to voters about how he distinguishes himself from his party’s leader.
Steve Schmidt, who is advising the campaign, told reporters Friday that Phillips would focus his early campaigning efforts on New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan. He dismissed concerns about Phillips’s small national profile. (Schmidt declined to say if he was managing the campaign or who was the manager. Multiple campaign staffers said they had no official titles.)
“I don’t think name ID is going to be an issue in this race,” said Schmidt, formerly a Republican strategist who advised the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain before leaving the party and helping former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s campaign exploration.
Phillips was previously the president and CEO of his family’s distilling business, which includes brands such as UV Vodka, and ran Talenti Gelato. In 2018, he won his first political office and flipped Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, which had been a GOP stronghold.
His financial fortune could be useful for him, as most Democratic donors are tied to Biden.
Phillips has $20.5 million to $70 million in assets, according to last year’s disclosure report. Asked about how much he will fund his own campaign, Schmidt said, “He will put a little bit in upfront to get the ball rolling, but we’re gonna be a small-dollar donor campaign.” Phillips said he planned to provide $2 million in the form of a loan.
Phillips has already spent some money on the endeavor: He placed less than $108,000 in television ads in Northeastern markets this month as of Thursday night, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.
So far, the Biden campaign has approached Phillips’s campaign as they have other long-shot candidates — by ignoring him.
Biden aides do not see Phillips as a real threat and are largely dismissive of his candidacy, though some allies concede a persistent focus on Biden’s age from a fellow Democrat is unhelpful and are privately concerned Phillips’s message could damage Biden in the general election.
On the whole, the campaign has largely disregarded the primary altogether, instead focusing on attacking Trump and building out its organizing strategy for battleground states.
But some Democrats have extended their political hospitality, including Bill Shaheen, the husband of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and a prominent New Hampshire Democrat, who has offered Phillips help meeting Democrats around the state.
Shaheen, who is hosting Phillips at his law firm on Monday, said he has not officially endorsed Phillips and has previously helped other Democratic candidates, including Mike Bloomberg in 2020, meet people around the state. Still, he said Phillips’s campaign is good for the country.
When asked about his candidacy getting repeatedly insulted or ignored by Democratic leaders, Phillips responded, “It inspires me, so keep them coming. That’s my motivation.”