Standing in front of his new campaign bus, stamped with his “Everyone’s invited” slogan, the three-term Minnesota congressman and millionaire businessman didn’t hear the question. But it is one likely to shadow him in the weeks ahead.
Phillips is embarking on a three-month sprint to not only introduce himself to voters — some of the people who showed up Friday were native Granite Staters, others were in town for a wedding, and a few had come on vacation from Florida — but to convince them he’s ready to leap from Congress to the White House. He’s drafting off concerns over Biden’s age, a glaring problem for the president in public polling, and leaning into the raw pain of New Hampshire voters over losing their first-in-the-nation status for Democrats in 2024.
“I believe that the president is one of the few — one of the few — Democrats that can lose to , and that’s why somebody has got to compete,” Phillips said in an interview on his campaign bus. “I’m ready. I’m very ready.”
What remains to be seen is if Phillips’ campaign can morph from a long-shot effort and fodder for media fascination (the crowd in attendance on Friday was equal parts supporters and members of the press) into a genuine challenge to the sitting president. Or if he’ll find serious policy daylight between himself and Biden.
Inside Biden’s campaign operation, Phillips’ challenge is currently being met with indifference, said a source close to the campaign. In a statement, the Biden campaign didn’t mention Phillips by name, saying merely that, “President Biden is proud of the historic, unified support he has from across the Democratic Party for his reelection” and that Biden “can uniquely bring together to once again beat the MAGA Republicans next November.”
But, just below the surface, there are clear signs that the Biden team is paying attention. The campaign sent out a fundraising email within hours of Phillips’ official launch, signed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, titled: “Minnesota loves Joe Biden.”
And, throughout the day, allies and operatives working on the reelect offered stray shards of criticism both at Phillips and at Steve Schmidt, the former Republican strategist turned vocal anti-Donald Trump critic who is now a top strategist for Phillips’ bid.
“It’s honestly so nihilistic,” said one Biden official. Hiring Schmidt “to run your campaign for the [Democratic] primary isn’t what I would call serious,” the person added.
Phillips, for his part, acknowledged that “you will see a machine that is activating” of his former friends and colleagues.
“I think if you look on Twitter today, I bet if you’re watching MSNBC today, I bet if you’re listening to press releases from the White House today … and I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m assuming that is out to destroy me,” Phillips said. “They will mobilize in a spirit of fear — not based on what the American people want, but based on what politicians want.”
If Phillips is to have a breakthrough, it will likely come in New Hampshire. The Democratic National Committee, which supports Biden, has aides on the ground in the state. But they’re rapid response communications staffers, tasked with going after the Republican candidates running in the state.
Biden won’t be competing in New Hampshire’s primary. His campaign confirmed earlier this week that his name would not appear on the ballot because the state is likely moving forward with an unsanctioned contest after Biden moved to reorder the primary calendar so South Carolina would hold the first primary. New Hampshire law requires the state to hold the first primary, and both the Republicans who control state government and the secretary of state who sets the primary date refuse to deviate from that tradition.
Instead, seasoned Democratic operatives here have been readying a write-in campaign for Biden that’s expected to formally launch early next week, Jim Demers, one of the organizers of the effort, said in an interview.
Phillips is hoping New Hampshire voters will reward him for prioritizing their primary — even if the DNC refuses to seat any delegates he might win. He was emphatic that he would “restore” New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status and praised the state as “the most civically engaged” in the nation.
“I guess” Phillips has a shot, state Rep. Eric Gallager, a Concord Democrat said as he trailed the newly minted presidential hopeful around the statehouse grounds.
Such signs were few but evident on Friday. June Latti, 80, a Concord Democrat, said she hadn’t heard of Phillips until she walked to the bank earlier Friday morning and saw his crew setting up for his event outside the statehouse. But her daughter — who lives in Denmark, where “they know all about him” — filled her in. By the time Latti heard Phillips speak, she was sold.
“This is an amazing person. He needs to be president,” Latti told reporters as she stood with one of Phillips’ blue campaign T-shirts slung across her shoulder and an autographed campaign sign in her hand. “Biden, who I really love, is done. He needs to just quietly step aside and let this beautiful young man … pull our country back together again.”
Phillips pledged to seed his campaign with a $2 million personal loan, as the contours of his bid have become clearer. Schmidt said the campaign will focus on winning voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan — three of the four early states. He said it plans to hold 119 town halls in the coming months, name-checking a potential visit to the Palestinian American community in Dearborn, Mich.
Of Nevada, the second early state where Phillips already missed the filing deadline, Schmidt said the nascent campaign is “ced[ing]” the state and it “doesn’t matter.”
For some New Hampshire Democrats and independents concerned about Biden’s age and stamina — and miffed about his primary play — Phillips presents a sorely wanted choice and a more realistic option than self-help guru Marianne Williamson, they said in interviews Friday.
Biden “made a big mistake in blowing off the primary in New Hampshire,” Laura Miller, a Contoocook independent, said as she waited for Phillips to arrive in Concord. “I’m happy someone else is on the Democratic ticket so that we can elevate the conversation.”
Yet Phillips faces an uphill battle persuading independent voters who can play in either major-party primary to cast their ballot in a likely lopsided contest on the Democratic side. At least two groups, the super PAC Primary Pivot and the more grassroots Primary Power, are already encouraging independent voters to pull ballots for the GOP contest in an effort to hurt Trump’s chances in New Hampshire and other battleground states with open primaries.
And Phillips starts as a virtual unknown. Even in this politically well-educated state, several voters walking by his launch event in Concord had never heard of the third-term Minnesota Democrat.
“He’s a Republican, right?” Carol Harris, a Democrat from Chichester, said with a slightly embarrassed laugh. When told Phillips is a Democrat, Harris, 81, said she would take a look at him — “only because of [Biden’s] age.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.
Evan Massoud is a political analyst with a knack for dissecting policy and governance. He provides readers with informed perspectives on political developments at home and abroad. Evan’s dedication to civic engagement extends to volunteering in local politics.