Phillips looks past South Carolina on rocky presidential race path

Man in suit at microphone speaks and raises hand
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., speaks at South Carolina’s “First in the Nation” dinner at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday.
Jacquelyn Martin | AP Photo

If Dean Phillips hopes to make a splash in the Democratic presidential primary, even he knows that South Carolina won’t be the place.

Ahead of Saturday’s official leadoff to his party’s nominating season, the Minnesota congressman has all but moved on. He’s not on the airwaves and has nowhere near the campaign operation he devoted to the unsanctioned New Hampshire primary in January. He was blunt about his chances at a major party dinner in the capital city of Columbia.

Speaking at the South Carolina Democrats’ “First in the Nation Celebration Dinner” last weekend, Phillips made clear he’s under no illusions about the support President Biden has in South Carolina.

“Some of you might be wondering why this white Jewish boy from the frozen tundra of Minnesota, would be appearing in a state in which 95 percent of you will be voting for Joe Biden, including most of you in this room,” Phillips said at the marquee fundraiser, where Biden was the featured speaker. “Yeah, I think that’s probably fair to say.”

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His campaign said Phillips showed up because he still wants to give Democratic voters a real choice. But strategically, South Carolina is tough terrain for him.

The state helped Biden get his 2020 bid back on track after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Propelled largely by the Black Democratic vote, the state delivered him a decisive, no-look-back victory that year.

Ahead of 2024, the Democratic National Committee heeded Biden’s wish to reorder the nominating calendar to reward South Carolina and give a state with a more diverse population leadoff status.

Political consultant Clay Middleton, a DNC member from South Carolina, said voters in his state couldn’t pick Phillips out of a lineup.

“How can you expect people to vote for you, if they don’t even know you?” Middleton said “Joe Biden has not taken South Carolina for granted in his reelection in this primary process.”

MPR News checked the advertising records at more than a dozen leading TV stations in the market and not a single one showed Phillips purchasing time while President Biden has had a paid ad presence on most of them.

The campaign report covering activity through Dec. 31, shows little investment in South Carolina aside from a few hotel stays and the $20,000 he plunked down to get on the ballot. That ballot signup required Phillips to pledge he wouldn’t challenge the eventual nominee by aligning with another party or write-in movement.

Campaign finance reports show he spent a lot of money in New Hampshire on TV ads, events and security. Biden still won New Hampshire despite not being on the ballot through a write-in campaign. Phillips received just shy of 20 percent of the vote.

According to his campaign report submitted to regulators this week, Phillips had filed or sought ballot access in more than two dozen states and territories by the end of 2023; he was working early this year to meet other state deadlines and requirements. That’s not to say he’ll definitely be in the race when some of those states hold their nominating contests.

Following South Carolina, Phillips is not on the ballot in Nevada, which votes next. His campaign said he plans to focus more on Michigan, which is not until Feb. 27.

His home state of Minnesota is part of the Super Tuesday cluster set for March 5. Phillips’ name is on the ballot, but Democratic Party leaders in Minnesota are lined up behind Biden.