Does it make sense to launch a primary challenge against a president of your own party who you say has done a “spectacular job” for the country? Most politicians would say “no.” Dean Phillips, a third-term congressman from Minnesota, says “yes.” He is convinced that Americans think that President Joe Biden is too old to serve another term as president, and as a result, he cannot beat Donald Trump in what would be a rematch of the 2020 election. Phillips recognizes that his primary challenge could help Trump win the White House—after all, his entire candidacy rests on the premise that time has passed Biden by. However, Phillips insists that he is just saying publicly what Democratic politicians and voters are saying privately. If Phillips succeeds in his bid for the presidency, he would set a number of firsts. He would be the first president to have been born on Inauguration Day. He would be the first president born in Minnesota. He would be the first Gold Star child to sit in the Oval Office. And he would be the first Jewish president.
Name: Dean Benson (Pfefer) Phillips
Date of Birth: January 20, 1969
Birthplace: St. Paul, Minnesota
Political Party: Democrat
Marital Status: Married to Karin Einisman (div. 2015); Annalise Glick (m. 2019)
Children: Daniella and Pia
Alma Mater: Brown University, BA in urban studies, 1991; University of Minnesota, MBA, 2000
Career: Phillips Distilling Company (1993-2012), CEO and Chairman (2000-12); executive chairman of Talenti Gelato (2012-16); co-founder and co-owner of Penny's Coffee (2016-19); member of the U.S. House of Representatives (2019-present).
Campaign Website: dean24.com
X Handle: @deanbphillips
Instagram Handle: @dean24official
Phillips launched his primary challenge quietly last Thursday night when he filed paperwork with the Federal Election Committee. The next day the public rollout of his campaign began with an interview on CBS Mornings.
He said he was running as “a proud Democrat” who “will do everything I possibly can” for whomever is the nominee. He noted that “over 50 percent of Democrats want a different nominee” than Biden. He claimed that many Democratic officials share his doubts about Biden’s ability to win reelection and that this sentiment
is pervasive. It is remarkably apparent to most. But the unwillingness to talk about it publicly, the unwillingness to say the quiet part out loud, is to me a sad example of the disease of our current political system, in which there is no reward for telling the truth.
Phillips, who was in Concord, New Hampshire, the state’s capital, followed up the CBS interview with interviews with other news outlets and by filing the paperwork needed to place his name on the ballot for the New Hampshire primary. He then announced his candidacy in a speech in the city’s Statehouse plaza, though those waiting for him might have been less enthusiastic than planned. He showed up for the event more than an hour late.
Phillips used the speech to expand on the themes he advanced in his CBS interview, including his reminder that if 2024 turns out to be a rematch of 2020, then “both candidates would be the oldest American presidents in our history.”
Phillips’s decision to launch his campaign in New Hampshire was deliberate. First, Friday was the deadline for getting on New Hampshire’s primary ballot. Second, he is seeking to exploit the Democratic Party’s decision, with Biden’s blessing, to give South Carolina rather than New Hampshire the privilege of hosting the first Democratic primary. New Hampshire Democrats balked at the demotion, noting that the state has hosted the nation’s first primary for nearly 125 years and that state law requires them to go first. The national Democratic Party responded by announcing that it will not count the results of the New Hampshire primary, and Biden agreed not to place his name on the New Hampshire ballot. Biden’s campaign team calculated that he could signal his displeasure with New Hampshire while still winning the state because loyal Democrats would write in his name.
Phillips’s campaign may foil that strategy. Dissatisfied New Hampshire Democrats might pull the lever for Phillips, either because they like his message or oppose Biden’s reelection. Even if Phillips loses, a good showing could hurt Biden politically by highlighting Democratic reservations about voting for an eighty-two-year-old candidate. History provides Biden with a reason to worry. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire primary. He narrowly defeated longshot anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose name was on the ballot. LBJ’s victory was widely viewed as a loss because it exposed Democratic opposition to his reelection. Less than three weeks later, Johnson surprised the nation by ending his reelection bid. In a possibly eerie historical parallel, McCarthy, like Phillips, hailed from Minnesota.
Phillips was born Dean Benson Pfefer on the same day that Richard Nixon was first inaugurated as president. Phillips’s father, U.S. Army Capt. Arthur “Artie” Pfefer died in a helicopter crash just south of Pleiku, South Vietnam, when Phillips was six months old. He never met his father and didn’t learn of how he died until he was ten years old.
Phillips’s mother, DeeDee, married Edward “Eddie” Phillips, the chairman and CEO of the Minnesota-based Phillips Distilling Company in 1972. Eddie adopted Dean, who then took Phillips as his last name. The marriage and adoption brought Dean into a family of both wealth and fame. Eddie’s mother was Pauline Esther Phillips, who is better known as “Dear Abby.”
Phillips attended local public schools in the Minneapolis suburbs and then an elite private high school. In 1987, he enrolled at Brown University. He graduated in 1991 with a degree in urban studies. He worked for two years at a bicycle equipment and apparel company. He then joined the family firm. He enrolled in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and graduated with an MBA in 2000. He then became chairman and CEO of Phillips Distilling.
In 2012, Phillips stepped down from his positions at Phillips Distilling after the death of his father. He turned his attention to Talenti, a small gelato company founded in Dallas. Talenti’s sales exploded. In 2014, it was sold to the global consumer goods giant Unilever for an undisclosed amount. Phillips then founded Penny’s Coffee. The coffee and crepes company closed its two Twin Cities locations in 2022.
Phillips turned to politics in 2018. He defeated a four-term Republican congressman, winning a seat that no Democratic had held in nearly a half century. He campaigned by stressing his business background and his commitment to be a “fiscally responsible, socially inclusive” moderate in Congress. He won reelection easily in 2020 and 2022.
Phillips is one of the wealthiest members of Congress. The financial disclosures he has filed as a member of Congress place his wealth somewhere between $20.5 million and $70 million. His assets are now held in a blind trust.
Phillips message has three parts: 1) Reelecting Trump would be a disaster for the United States and for American democracy; 2) Biden has had a tremendously effective presidency but is too old and too far down in the polls to beat Trump; and 3) the United States needs to turn to a new generation of leaders who will have the courage to level with the American people, ignore the extreme views in both parties, and tackle the country’s deep and pervasive problems. His campaign slogan looks to be “Make America Affordable Again.”
Those goals don’t necessarily sit well together. Phillips plans to hold more than one hundred town-hall meetings in New Hampshire in the coming months. Attacking Biden or challenging his policies risks helping Trump return to the White House. Meanwhile, attacking Trump and Biden will do little to build public support for a fundamental change in government policy. Phillips seems to recognize the dangers and contradictions in his campaign. One reporter covering his campaign launch wrote:
Phillips is clearly torn over whether to criticize the president. On Friday he veered, at times only seconds apart, between praising Biden and presenting barely veiled attacks on his age and economic record.
Phillips’s policy agenda is a work in progress. Four days after he launched his bid, his campaign website was just a pitch for campaign donations. It did not mention any issues or present any policy proposals.
Phillips may find it difficult to sustain his campaign over the longer term. He has already missed the deadline to make the ballot in the Nevada primary, and he may lack the staff needed to gather the signatures required to get on the ballot in other states. Phillips is self-funding his campaign at the start. It remain to be seen whether he can persuade Democratic donors, whether big or small, to give to his campaign. He has already received criticism because one prominent conservative billionaire contributed to his congressional campaign.
Phillips and Donald Trump
I was in the House chamber that day. I know what the former president did to our country. Imagine what he would have done if he had won election that time. Imagine what he will do if he wins again.
Phillips voted twice to impeach Trump.
Phillips’s Foreign Policy Views
As a relative newcomer to politics, Phillips’s foreign policy record doesn’t begin to match that of the man he is trying to beat for the Democratic presidential nomination. Phillips sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he is tenth in seniority among Democrats. Given his relatively junior status, he is not the ranking member on any of the committee’s subcommittees. Because of deep-seated partisan divisions and the overall political dysfunction plaguing the House, the Foreign Affairs committee holds relatively few hearings and passes little in the way of substantive legislation. In any event, foreign policy is likely to be one area where Phillips follows Biden rather than criticizes him.
Phillips is with Biden on the major foreign policy issues of the day. After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Phillips said:
We need a two-state solution. We need peace and prosperity and opportunity for both Palestinians and Israelis living side by side. But right now, it is black and white. We need the United States to continue to support Israel. We need to eradicate Hamas. And we need to encourage Palestinians to elevate a leadership that can sit at the table with principle with good character, and with the intention for peace.
Phillips similarly favors continued U.S. military support for Ukraine. A week before jumping in the presidential race, Phillips went on X to applaud the speech Biden gave explaining why it is in the U.S. national interest to make sure that Russia does not prevail over its smaller neighbor.
President Biden issued an outstanding speech this evening, making a strong case for why we must support Ukraine, Israel, and all who seek self-determination, security, and peace. That’s what America does.— Rep. Dean Phillips 🇺🇸 (@RepDeanPhillips) October 20, 2023
Phillips is with most other Democrats in supporting action to address and reverse the effects of climate change. He voted for Biden’s signature piece of legislation on the matter:
The effects of climate change are now being seen and felt by nearly every American and by people across the world. Our planet will survive, but if we don’t take urgent action, humanity may not—and America must resume its role as a global leader in addressing this crisis. Fortunately, the climate investments signed into law as part of the Inflation Reduction Act are both historic and meaningful. The incentives included in it will help lower energy costs and speed our transition to a clean energy economy while cutting emissions by 40% by 2030. This alone will not put a stop to the climate crisis – but it’s a darn good start.
One area where Phillips has criticized Biden is border security. He visited the Rio Grande Valley during his first year in office and came away saying that he “couldn’t believe that, in my own country, that people were being kept in the ways” that he saw. He has voted for immigration bills that other Democrats have opposed. After entering the presidential race, he pointedly criticized fellow Democrats for ignoring the problems on the southern border:
Having been to the southern border twice, it is not secure. It is inhumane. It is not fair to those who are seeking refuge. It is not fair to our border patrol agents who have shown extraordinary mercy and humanity in ways that I wish more Americans saw. And they’ve been demeaned by Democrats.
Phillips also took a shot at U.S. foreign aid programs.
We allocate billions and billions of dollars to countries around the world. We are not using it effectively. It’s wasted. It fuels corruption in a lot of places. Why do we not invest in the very countries from which migrants are coming because they’re persecuted, feel unsafe, or have no opportunity? Why don’t we use American resources upstream to invest in those countries, so people have a safe place, they have opportunity, they have shelter and do not need to pour across our border?
That said, Phillips’s foreign policy would probably be more a continuation of Biden’s foreign policy than a rejection of it.
More on Phillips
Phillips gave journalist Tim Alberta an inside seat on his decision to run for president. Alberta wrote in the resulting profile that “Phillips insisted to me that he wouldn’t be running against Biden. Rather, he would be campaigning for the future of the Democratic Party.”
Politico published “55 Things You Need to Know About Dean Phillips.”
Peter Hamby of Puck News interviewed Phillips shortly after he launched his campaign. Hamby reports that Phillips “dodged twice when I asked him if he would support a ceasefire in Israel, a position that would easily help him carve out a space to Biden’s left among young voters.”
Other posts in this series:
Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.