Unity or challenge? Rep. Dean Phillips responds to potential presidential bid

A man sits in a U.S. Congress meeting room, listening.
Rep. Dean Phillips questions witnesses during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 16, 2020. He is considering adding his name to a short list of Democratic presidential candidates.
Kevin Dietsch-Pool | Getty Images 2020

The Democratic Party is still largely backing incumbent President Joe Biden for the 2024 nomination since the 80-year-old launched his reelection campaign in April. Right now he faces two long-shot challengers for the ticket: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and author Marianne Williamson.

Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips, who has been vocal about having a contested nomination, has been flirting with the idea of adding his name to that list. Phillips was a guest on Morning Edition with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer. And said while he doesn’t believe he’s in the best position to run right now, he is “well-positioned for the job itself.”

“I have not said that I am running or not running. I just want to make that clear,” Phillips said. He is, however, encouraging other unnamed candidates to launch a campaign for president.

Twelve Republicans are vying for the nomination, including former President Donald Trump, despite numerous ongoing court battles in federal and state courts for his alleged role to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

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The Democratic field is just a quarter of that size and Phillips says his constituents are asking for alternatives.

“Democrats, the ones I’m hearing from and speaking with, and the ones reaching out to me, are saying the same thing. They want more options,” Phillips said. “I have to do what I know is the right thing, my conviction to encourage competition, because it makes us better. And that’s my message.”

The representative said he has not spoken to Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Gov. Tim Walz about his plans to encourage a competitive primary.

Phillips added he believes “deeply” in Biden, noting that he led the nation through “very difficult times,” and did so “exceptionally well and with grace.” He said he’d support Biden if he does get the Democratic nomination, but that it’d be wise for the party to have “backup plans” in place.

Despite vocalizing his concern over the age of some of his fellow congress members — like Rep. Diane Feinstein and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — affecting their job performance, Phillips, 54, said Tuesday that the issue is mental acuity, not numerical age.

“I work with some 80-plus-year-olds in Congress right now who are sharp and competent and energetic as any of my much younger colleagues. That’s not the issue. But Americans have determined that that is an issue,” Phillips said. “And in a country like ours, we should at least be cognizant of the issues; we should be transparent.”

The average age of Minnesotans in the Third Congressional District which Phillips serves is 40, according to Census data. But nationwide, Americans 45 and older make up more than half the population. Phillips said that data and its reflection on older candidates won’t be an issue for him.

“It’s not the age, it is tenure. There are a lot of people in Washington that I simply think have been around too long, that have lost touch with the very people they’re charged with representing, and perhaps most importantly, are preventing next-generation capable leaders, both Democrats and Republicans from pursuing public office,” Phillips said.

“We need to complement newer members with those who have more institutional knowledge. But we also need to create space, particularly Democrats, because we are a party of youth and energy and optimism and the future. And I don’t think that’s been reflected in the public officeholders from the White House through the Congress to state houses around the country.”