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Liberated from House leadership, Democrat Dean Phillips is still urging his party to look beyond Biden

By Arit John, CNN

(CNN) — Over the past year, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips has made a name for himself as the member of the Democratic Party most willing to break rank and call on someone to primary President Joe Biden. His insistence that his party elevate its next generation has led to one person’s demotion from Democratic leadership: his own.

Now he feels freer than ever.

“What I discovered – and it won’t be surprising – is that unless you are the leader, either the speaker or the minority leader, serving on a leadership body is actually limiting, not liberating,” Phillips told CNN in an interview just days after stepping down as a co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, where he helped craft the caucus’ messaging.

After more than a year of advocating a competitive Democratic primary, citing the president’s age and polling showing discontent among voters – and suggesting he might run himself – the three-term congressman announced Sunday that he would voluntarily leave his leadership role.

In his announcement, he noted that his position on 2024 was “causing discomfort.” The tipping point occurred last week when Phillips was called out in front of the entire Democratic Caucus, he said. During a closed-door discussion on government spending, California Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove told House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries that a member of his leadership team was out of step with the party message on the president, an exchange first reported by Axios. Phillips said he felt it was “appropriate” to step down once concerns were raised widely while praising Jeffries for offering space for differing opinions.

His decision came in the middle of a series of congressional crises: a narrowly averted government shutdown, the historic toppling of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the ensuing turmoil. Part of the problem is an unwavering loyalty to party that dominates politics, he said.

“While I love my Democratic colleagues, and I believe deeply in our values and our principles and our platform, I’m recognizing the terrible consequences of a duopoly,” he said. “It manifested itself this week. It manifests itself in so many of the disasters that have befallen the Congress … and I feel much more liberated and able to convey my convictions off that table.”

Bafflement back home

It’s far from the first time Phillips has pushed for such change. As a candidate in 2018 taking on incumbent Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen in a suburban Twin Cities district, Phillips was asked during a debate if he would support Nancy Pelosi for House speaker if Democrats flipped control of the chamber that November.

“As I’ve said countless times: It’s time for new leadership on both sides of the aisle,” he said. He eventually did support Pelosi for speaker.

Five years later, his stance remains the same. Back in his district, it’s causing confusion.

“The thing I hear most often in Minnesota, among Minnesota Democrats, is just bafflement,” Javier Morillo, a former president of the Service Employees International Union Local 26 and a Minnesota-based Democratic strategist, said of Phillips’ calls for a Biden challenger. “Everyone’s just baffled about why he’s even doing this.”

Vance Opperman, a Minnesota businessman and longtime Democratic donor who has backed both Biden and Phillips, said he hasn’t talked to the congressman about the president and doesn’t know why Phillips has spoken up.

“I’ve stayed away from that,” he said.

While he acknowledged that he wished Biden was 20 years younger, Opperman praised the president’s “extraordinary” record on the war in Ukraine and for enacting legislation such as the CHIPs Act, which promotes semiconductor research and manufacturing, and the 2021 infrastructure law, which is helping fund improvements to outdated roads and bridges. He’s also “very happy” with Phillips.

“I don’t want to pick a fight with Dean, and I don’t know of any serious attack or effort to run against Dean, but I’d oppose that,” Opperman said. “I’d be very happy to do whatever we have to do to make sure Dean is reelected.”

Phillips is unlikely to pick up a primary challenger, and his push might even play well with some voters in his 3rd Congressional District, said Larry Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. The issue is Phillips’ standing within the Democratic Party nationally and in Congress.

“What did he gain for doing this? This idea that he may run in the primary is ludicrous,” Jacobs said. “I continue to be a bit confused [about] what he’s up to.”

Phillips has acknowledged in interviews that there are several Democrats who’d be in a stronger position to challenge Biden for the nomination next year. But he’s also continued to say that he’s considering running himself.

“I have thought about it, and I recognize there’d be laughter, there’d be distaste, there’d be disgust among many,” Phillips said during a recent appearance on Republican strategist Steve Schmidt’s “The Warning” podcast. “But I also have that sense that the country is begging for alternatives. Whether that’s me, whether it’s somebody else, time will tell.”

Biden, widely seen as the presumptive Democratic nominee, is currently facing long-shot primary challenges from author Marianne Williamson and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has fueled speculation about a possible independent bid and teased an announcement in Philadelphia next week. The incumbent president has outraised both opponents and holds a commanding lead in primary polling. The Democratic National Committee has not planned any primary debates.

But recent polls have shown that voters are concerned about whether Biden, 80, will be healthy enough to complete a second term. Biden would be 82 years old on Inauguration Day in 2025, while former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the GOP primary, would be 78.

An NBC News poll released September 24 found that 59% of registered voters had “major concerns” about Biden’s mental and physical health. Just 34% of those surveyed had the same concerns about Trump, but 52% said they had major concerns about Trump’s various criminal and civil court cases.

Biden also faces low approval ratings – an average of 39%, according to CNN’s Poll of Polls.

Phillips said his opposition to Biden’s reelection bid isn’t about the president as a person, but the data.

“I don’t know how one can dismiss what we’re hearing, what we’re seeing, what we’re sensing and what we’re reading. And it all points to the same thing,” he said. “If Democrats do not listen right now, I’m afraid the consequences will be another Trump administration. And I will not sit on the sidelines, and I will not shush up.”

Democrats have brushed off the negative polling, arguing that it’s a sign of increased political polarization and that the president needs time to sell the country on his accomplishments.

Amy Koch, a Republican strategist and former Minnesota Senate majority leader, said that while Democrats in her state have been quiet in public, privately they’ve been bothered by Phillips’ decision to speak up – even if Biden isn’t their ideal candidate either.

“It’s surprising to me because [at the same time] they will say some of the same things – or certainly not say that Joe Biden is their first choice to run for president again,” she said. “Yet they seem annoyed that [Phillips] would say that out loud.”

A new generation of Democrats

Phillips, an heir to a Minnesota distilling business and former chairman of Talenti Gelato, first ran for Congress during the 2018 midterm elections, at a time when Democrats were attempting to tie Republicans to Trump and Republicans were portraying Democrats as rubber stamps for Pelosi, that cycle’s GOP boogeywoman. He was part of a cohort of younger, moderate candidates who promised to work across the aisle.

Phillips focused his campaign on his opponent, Paulsen, and his support for a failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He also highlighted the five-term congressman’s reputation for avoiding public appearances – including an ad in which a Bigfoot character complained that Paulsen was even more elusive than him. Phillips traveled around the district in a 1960 International Harvester milk truck his campaign called the “Government Repair Truck.”

He beat Paulsen by 11 points and handily won reelection in 2020 and 2022. Prior to his 2018 victory, the district, which covers wealthy suburbs around Minneapolis, had not elected a Democrat in more than half a century.

Once in office, he joined the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and continued to call for younger leaders in Congress, embracing Jeffries’ rise to House minority leader. In December, House Democrats elected him to serve as a co-chair of their messaging arm. Phillips campaigned for the job by visiting the offices of a majority of his colleagues, gifting them tiny succulents with campaign cards describing his plan to modernize Democratic communications.

Last year, Phillips became one of the first prominent Democratic voices to say he didn’t think Biden should seek reelection, telling a local radio station the party needed “a new generation of compelling, well-prepared, dynamic Democrats to step up.” Once Biden officially jumped into the race earlier this year, Phillips started calling for an alternative and suggested that he might run himself. The congressman also met with donors in New York over the summer to discuss a potential bid.

Many Democrats seen as potential presidential candidates in 2028, including Govs. Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, are actively working to help Biden’s reelection bid, as is his ticket mate, Vice President Kamala Harris.

Just as efforts to draft a last-minute candidate to join the Republican presidential primary have fallen flat, a late Democratic entrant would struggle to build a campaign and raise money, even if the candidate had support. Phillips has also acknowledged he lacks the national name recognition to launch a meaningful campaign.

Biden supporters say the time has passed to look for an alternative, and resources need to be directed toward helping the incumbent.

“This was a conversation that would have been helpful to have maybe three years ago,” Morillo said. “At this point, it’s noise and a distraction, and it just threatens to add more chaos to what is undoubtedly going to be a chaotic political year in 2024.”

For now, Phillips said he’s focused on doing his part to quell the current chaos in the House. The greatest disappointment of the speaker vote, he said, was listening to McCarthy say he didn’t want to work with Democrats to save his leadership position.

If the next speaker isn’t a Democrat – which almost certainly will be the case – Phillips said he would be open to backing a Republican if it was someone principled, someone with integrity, and someone who saw the role as representing the whole House, not just the speaker’s party.

“When you serve in leadership of the caucus or the conference, many believe that responsibility to be one to make things easier for your team,” Phillips said. “I took an oath to the Constitution, not to a caucus.”

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