Biden’s Minnesota trip serves as a show of political force against primary challenger Dean Phillips

Nov 1, 2023, 2:02 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is headed to Minnesota to visit a family-run farm south of Minneapolis and hold a fundraiser featuring many of the state’s top Democrats, aimed to demonstrate political clout on the home turf of his new 2024 primary challenger, Rep. Dean Phillips.

The president plans to announce more than $5 billion in spending on adapting agriculture to climate change, expanding high-speed internet access, improving local infrastructure, and more. The money comes from infrastructure and inflation reduction laws approved earlier in Biden’s term.

“The president is very cognizant of the fact that equity needs to be at the center of what we do and all that we do,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. He described the announcement as “an exciting opportunity to celebrate the importance of rural America.”

Biden’s reelection campaign said the president’s trip to Minnesota was planned before Phillips announced his candidacy. The congressman is the only elected official from the president’s party to campaign against Biden for the White House.

Phillips is a moderate, 54-year-old congressman from the largely well-to-do, comfortably Democratic Minneapolis suburbs. He has been saying since last year that Biden shouldn’t be seeking reelection and should instead step aside to make way for a new generation. He points to polls showing voters — even many Democrats — concerned about the 80-year-old president’s age and electability against Donald Trump, the former president and Republican front-runner.

Biden’s trip, coming so soon after Phillips’ announcement, will be an opportunity for the president to try to snuff out any potential support for his nascent primary challenger. Invited guests to Biden’s fundraiser include past donors to Phillips’ congressional campaigns, as well as Minnesota Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.

Phillips’ campaign will feel “almost like a cold glass of water being thrown in his face,” said Ken Martin, chair of Minnesota Democrats and a Democratic National Committee vice chair.

Martin is a friend of Phillips and recruited him to run for his House seat. But if Phillips believes that people are clamoring for alternatives to Biden, Martin said, “he may be alone in that thinking amongst Democratic Party leaders.”

“There really does not seem to be as much of an opening here, as much as he might want, or think there is, or should be,” he said.

Walz has been even more full-throated in his defense of Biden, releasing a fundraising email Friday on Biden’s behalf before Phillips even formally got into the race titled “Minnesotans Love Joe Biden.”

“I have to say this about Minnesota: it’s a great state, full of great people. And sometimes they do crazy things,” Walz wrote, such as making “political side shows for themselves.”

An AP-NORC poll released in August found that the top words associated with Biden were “old” and “confused.” Nearly 70% of Democrats and 77% of U.S. adults said they thought Biden was too old to be effective for four more years.

Another Minnesota Democrat, Rep. Angie Craig, joined Phillips in suggesting Biden shouldn’t seek reelection prior to last year’s midterms, but now says she supports the president. Dutch Creek Farms, which Biden visits Wednesday, is in Craig’s district.

Prominent Black Democrats, meanwhile, have slammed Phillips for focusing his early campaign on New Hampshire, which is overwhelmingly white, in defiance of the new, Biden-championed 2024 Democratic primary calendar that has South Carolina going first. The move is meant to better empower Black and minority voters — but Biden also did far better as a 2020 Democratic primary candidate in South Carolina, which he won handily, than New Hampshire, where he finished fifth.

“Any serious Democratic candidate would understand that Black voters are the backbone of the Democratic Party,” said Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson. He said Phillips’ White House run is “disrespectful to the voters of color.”

New Hampshire’s primary, which officials are planning to hold in January ahead of South Carolina’s on Feb. 3, is unsanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Biden won’t appear on its ballot but every New Hampshire state senator and other party leaders are leading a write-in campaign on the president’s behalf.

“I welcome President Biden back to Minnesota, where Everyone’s Invited!,” Phillips said in a statement about Biden’s trip, referencing his campaign slogan. “I’m grateful that the president chose to make a last-minute trip to our great state to discuss the urgent issues affecting everyday Americans.”

He added that he “won’t be able to welcome the president, as I’ll be hosting my first town hall in New Hampshire — which is celebrating its 103rd anniversary of hosting America’s first in the nation presidential primary.”

Biden’s campaign put out a statement as Phillips announced his bid last week, saying it was “hard at work mobilizing the winning coalition that President Biden can uniquely bring together.” That’s after ignoring previous primary challenges from self-help author Marianne Williamson and Robert Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist who eventually switched from running as a Democrat to an independent.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wouldn’t comment on Biden hitting Phillips’ home state beyond telling reporters that “this president loves Minnesota.”

Minnesota hasn’t backed a Republican for president since Richard Nixon in 1972. Trump narrowly lost the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and talked before the 2020 election of flipping the state before ultimately failing to do so. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said Biden will need to shore up Minnesota support for 2024, likening it to a swing state the president has visited more than any other, Pennsylvania.

“It is not a diehard, reliable blue state,” Belcher said. He noted Minnesota is part of the midwestern blue wall that includes Michigan and Wisconsin, and Biden “does not stand a chance if that blue wall does not stand.”

“We’ve seen that blue wall, in past elections, be shaky,” Belcher said.

Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, who worked with Phillips as a member of the centrist House Problem Solvers Caucus and other legislative endeavors, said she has “an enormous amount of respect for Dean” but “I feel as though his likely platform would be very similar to the platform that he has voted for largely, which is President Biden’s agenda and legislative accomplishments.”

“I don’t see a real differentiation,” Houlahan said. She also called Phillips a ”distraction” at a time when Democrats should be backing Biden “in a unified manner to allow him, and us, to complete work that we’ve all started together.”

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Biden’s Minnesota trip serves as a show of political force against primary challenger Dean Phillips