Updated Dec 17, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Dean Phillips' standing on Capitol Hill has all but collapsed

Photo illustration of U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips in front of the Capitol Building, surrounded by triangles pointing towards him.

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

As Rep. Dean Phillips ramps up his long-shot bid for president, his Democratic colleagues back in Washington are fuming at what they see as the Minnesotan's betrayal of his party.

Why it matters: Phillips has undergone a stunningly swift fall from grace and elicits a rare level of hostility from colleagues who elected him to House Democratic leadership just a year earlier, underscoring the perils of challenging party orthodoxy.

What they're saying: Phillips told Axios he was "greeted with much more affection and friendliness ... than I anticipated" when he was back on Capitol Hill last week — but he also said of his colleagues, "Frankly, the disappointment is mutual."

  • Democrats "who see the same polls that I see," he said, have "a responsibility ... to raise their voices and work together to ensure that we maintain a democracy of competition and not coronation."
  • "I wish more were willing to torpedo their careers in Congress so as to prevent the torpedoing of our entire country," he added.

Zoom in: In interviews with Axios, a wide range of House Democrats shared thoughts about Phillips ranging from qualified criticism to outright malice.

  • "I don't think Dean Phillips is earning any new friends in the House Democratic Caucus these days," said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the chair of the caucus.
  • Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) called Phillips' campaign a "total joke" and "very disrespectful of the president and the party," saying he's "torched his reputation."
  • "Dean Phillips is not going to win any primary. I think he's not helpful to the country," said former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
  • "He seems to be taking a page out of the Trump playbook," said Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.). "It makes me wonder ... if he's a real Democrat."

Zoom out: Phillips was first elected to the House in 2018, flipping a Republican-held seat in the Minneapolis suburbs and emerging as a prominent figure in the Democratic caucus' moderate wing.

State of play: The basis for Phillips' campaign is polling that suggests most voters — and even many Democrats — don't want to see Biden as the Democratic nominee.

  • Phillips started out praising Biden and framing his bid in strategic and philosophical terms, but he's since grown willing to go negative — even saying Biden is a threat to democracy.
  • Phillips told Axios his comments were not meant to label Biden himself as a "distinct threat to democracy," but were instead a reference to the suppression of competition and cancellation of several state primaries.

What we're hearing: One senior House Democrat described the feeling toward Phillips within the Democratic caucus as "pure hatred," saying many members are "pissed" about his attacks on Biden.

  • Another factor fueling the anger, the lawmaker said, is Phillips skipping most House votes since launching his campaign and being "AWOL" as ranking member of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee focused on the Middle East as the Israel-Hamas war rages.
  • "We have serious credible colleagues running for tough Senate seats. ... They all show up," they added.
  • Phillips told Axios he assured Democratic leadership he would return for any "vote of consequence" for which he is needed and would "totally understand" if he was replaced in his subcommittee role.

The intrigue: What has come as a particular surprise to many Democrats is Phillips' rapid transformation from a loyal party man to a renegade.

  • "He was well-liked," said the senior Democrat. "He's either changed or we were all duped."
  • A second senior Democrat said Phillips "was bringing a lot of that talent to the House," and that his presidential run "has a downside, but no upside. No upside for him, no upside for the party, no upside to the country."
  • "He was a good Democrat," said Hoyer, adding with a grin: "He was a very strong supporter of the Biden agenda in the last Congress."

The bottom line: Even Democrats who maintain personal affection for Phillips say he's putting colleagues in a difficult position as they prepare to run on the same ballot as Biden.

  • "I love Dean, he's my friend," a third House Democrat said. "But people ... are mad that he's saying things about Biden that could be used in a general election campaign."
  • "Dean is a really nice guy and he's been very welcoming to me," said Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), but "the fate of our democracy is on the line. People have to take that incredibly seriously, including Dean. ... Make the case, but don't undermine."
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