Politics and Government

Dean Phillips’ presidential bid could put Minnesota’s 3rd District in play

A man stands next to a booth as two people listen.
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips (center) visits a restaurant in Tilton, N.H., and tries to win support from two Trump backers on Oct. 28.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips’ announcement that he would challenge President Joe Biden opens the field for other prospective candidates looking to get to Congress.

It wasn’t that long ago that the 3rd Congressional District was a reliable seat for Republicans. But Phillips broke the hold in 2018 and, aided somewhat by reshaped boundaries through redistricting, he has been sent back to Washington twice with plenty of breathing room.

The 3rd District encompasses a crescent of western Twin Cities suburbs with Coon Rapids and Rogers at the north and Bloomington in the south. Down the ballot, Democrats have also performed well, snatching up most of the legislative seats that had once been in Republican hands.

Since entering the presidential race, Phillips has largely sidestepped questions about whether he would forego a re-election campaign in his district. He’s given himself until early next year to break through in his presidential bid. 

“I'll be clear - if my campaign is not viable after March 5th, I'll wrap it up and endorse the likely nominee - Biden or otherwise,” Phillips posted on social media on Saturday. “I will then campaign for them as vigorously as I'm campaigning now. I'm not here for games - the goal is to maximize the odds of beating Trump.”

At least one candidate — Ron Harris — had already announced he would run for the seat; others have said they would wait to see whether Phillips stands down.

When Phillips won the seat, he flipped it from GOP to DFL control for the first time in decades. While DFL leaders feel confident that a Democrat — whether Phillips or someone else — can win again there in 2024, they acknowledged it wouldn’t be a slam dunk.

“This is a decidedly purple district that will take a lot of time, energy and money to defend and to keep in Democratic hands,” Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chair Ken Martin said. “We, of course, will do that. But the uncertainty of whether or not he's going to run for that also complicates things.”

Harris, a former Minneapolis city official and Democratic National Committee member, has said Phillips should skip a re-election bid while he pursues higher office.

“I don’t think you can have it both ways,” Harris said.

Regardless of Phillips’ plans, Harris said he planned to vie for the seat in 2024.

“No matter what he does, we’re going to run. We’re going to run no matter what,” Harris said. “And until he shares that it isn’t a primary challenge, it’s still going to be a primary challenge.”

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter endorsed Harris on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

a man sits with his hand resting on his chin
Ron Harris, a former chief resilience officer in Minneapolis, began a run for Congress on Friday, entering the race for a seat now held by DFL Rep. Dean Phillips.
Courtesy of Ron Harris

Other prominent DFLers who live in the district have said they’re weighing a bid. But that would happen only if Phillips opts not to run again.

“I would give it serious consideration if Congressman Phillips were actually leaving Congress, but I’m not sure we really know that at this point, at least, I don’t feel like I do. And so that’s sort of the first fork in the road for me,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon.

State Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, and Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, have also said they would mull a run if Phillips opts out. Stephenson was among a handful of DFL state lawmakers representing a part of the 3rd Congressional District to sign onto a statement of support for Biden’s re-election a day before the president visited Minnesota last week.

Randy Sutter is chair of the 3rd Congressional District Republican Party. He said he is optimistic about the GOP’s prospects in the race, even though a Republican candidate hasn’t come to the fore.

“With all this uncertainty at this point, I think we have a good chance,” Sutter said.

Whether national Republicans invest in the race also remains to be seen. For now, the party is more aggressively making a play for the 2nd Congressional District, which runs to the south of the Twin Cities and is held by U.S. Rep. Angie Craig. It has been a focal-point race in recent election cycles as well.  

Paul Anderson, a former state senator and campaign staff member for longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, said the district has shifted to the left in recent political cycles. But Anderson said Democrats won’t have a lock on the district next year, especially if they put up a candidate who can be painted as out of step. 

“If it’s an open seat, it does change the dynamic,” he said. “That’s going to take a major toll and if either party puts up an extreme candidate, they will lose.”

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