Minnesota’s Phillips aims for Granite State payoff to propel presidential bid forward

Dean Phillips Campaigns In New Hampshire Ahead Of State's Primary
Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips speaks to supporters during a campaign rally on Saturday, in Nashua, N.H.
Brandon Bell | Getty Images

New Hampshire voter Donna Noelte has bestowed companion nicknames — Grumpy One and Grumpy Two — on Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the 2020 White House rivals who are front-runners for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations again this year.

To Noelte, a 75-year-old Concord resident, a rematch is off-putting and a fresh crop of leaders with new ideas is desirable.

“I passed the baton to somebody else 13 years ago when I retired, so I think some of them my age and older should start to do the same thing,” Noelte said.  

Noelte is prepared to cast her ballot in Tuesday’s primary for Democratic candidate Dean Phillips, a three-term Minnesota representative who she came to see at a coffee-shop campaign stop in New Hampshire’s capital city.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

“I like what Dean Phillips has to say,” she said of the 55-year-old presidential hopeful. “This is somebody that I can back and have enthusiasm for.”

For Phillips to break through, he’ll need to tap into that angst in a big way in an unsanctioned Democratic primary. The Republican field is effectively down to former President Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis left the race Sunday and backed Trump. 

The Democratic race is more muddled because the national party isn’t recognizing the results in awarding convention delegates. New Hampshire officials decided to move ahead with a Democratic primary anyway because it is required by state law, but Biden kept his name off the ballot.

People enter a building with Dean Phillips signs outside.
People arrive for a campaign rally for Democratic challenger Rep. Dean Phillips.
Brandon Bell | Getty Images

Biden supporters are waging a write-in campaign, with his allies and yard signs promoting the effort. But the president himself isn’t campaigning here.

Phillips has spent more time in New Hampshire than any place else since launching a bid for president in October. 

Over the weekend, Phillips held multiple events, many at smaller-scale venues. He made the case to those who showed up that he’s running for president to save democracy.

“Joe Biden is a good man, but he will not beat the most dangerous man in the world,” Phillips said in reference to Trump before pivoting to his appraisal of someone he regards as a weak incumbent. “We all know that Joe Biden is in decline.”

Dean Phillips holds a microphone with people listening and holding signs.
Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips listens to a question during a campaign rally.
Brandon Bell | Getty Images

Phillips sells voters on his business background and efforts to work across party lines in Congress. And he’s at ease ripping Democrats and Republicans as he appeals for support. 

“Are you all sick of this dysfunction and battling each other fighting each other instead of fighting for one another?” Phillips told dozens of people crammed into the coffee shop. “Are you tired of Democrats and Republicans acting like kindergartners?”

About 40 percent of New Hampshire voters are registered as “undeclared” — more than those registered as Democrats or Republicans. They can vote in either primary. 

Haley, who was the U.N. Ambassador under Trump, needs the unaffiliated voters to come her way if she’s to have a chance to overtake Trump. But Phillips is also targeting that group in his campaign.

Donna LeRoy, of the town of Derry in southern New Hampshire, is an unaffiliated voter whom Phillips recently won over.

A woman poses for a photograph.
Donna LeRoy is an unaffiliated voter from Derry whom Phillips recently won over.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“The way he talked about not wanting to be divisive and having America be America again, to be positive and to show the world what America can really be — that’s what we need,” she said.

Not everyone in the room is enthusiastic about Phillips’ challenge to Biden. Jason Sugarman, 21, is angry about it.

“I feel like it could potentially harm President Biden’s campaign,” Sugarman said after a Phillips event in a community room in Nashua as he waited for a picture with the candidate.

In addition to sounding alarms about Biden’s electability, Phillips promotes national health care, free college education and seeding every American baby $1,000 in a growth-investment account. They would get the money upon graduating from high school.

Phillips also advocates federal marijuana legalization.

“I inhaled and I enjoyed it,” he said at a campaign stop.

Phillips acknowledges he’s pivoted left in recent weeks but rejects the idea he’s pandering by bringing up ideas he didn’t necessarily push hard for during his time in Congress.

“First and foremost, I have not changed one ounce of my principles,” Phillips told MPR News.

Polling suggests Phillips has gained ground but remains far behind Biden. Still, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said he’ll be closely watching the vote tally because the environment is unpredictable.

“Polling has been notoriously awful over the last number of election cycles. So that’s why I think it makes it a little exciting,” Buckley said. “We just really don’t know exactly what is going to happen.”

A person sits at a desk.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley at his office in Concord. Buckley says he’ll be closely watching the vote tally.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

The Democratic campaign, while not as visible as the Republican contest, is an echo of 1968. 

That year, U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, also a Minnesota lawmaker, challenged Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. McCarthy’s 42 percent in New Hampshire’s primary preceded Johnson’s decision to abandon reelection.

Phillips, who has invested millions of personal dollars into his own campaign, said he’s hoping for a 25 percent showing.

State Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a former New Hampshire House speaker, has endorsed Phillips. Shurtleff said if Phillips can’t win the support from four out of 10 Democratic primary voters, he should step aside and get behind Biden. 

“I think that’s the threshold he needs for New Hampshire,” Shurtleff said. “And I think if he doesn’t get that, it should impact any decisions he makes going forward.”

Phillips is vowing to press on regardless of Tuesday’s election result. He’s on the ballot in South Carolina and also intends to campaign in Michigan, which moved up on the Democratic calendar.

“Somebody had to have the audacity to practice democracy when everybody else said don’t do it. You should sit down, stand in line and shush up,” Phillips said. “That’s not how I operate everybody because this is the United States of America.”