Jan 17, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Why Bernie's ex-campaign boss is helping Dean Phillips challenge Biden

Democratic strategist Jeff Weaver is shown in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie.

Democratic strategist Jeff Weaver, shown during the 2016 campaign, is running Rep. Dean Phillips' presidential campaign because he doesn't think President Biden can be re-elected. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

LITTLETON, N.H. — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supports Joe Biden's re-election, but the senator's longtime senior aide and former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, is working for Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips and his long-shot effort to stop Biden from being the Democratic nominee.

Why it matters: To make any splash in the Democratic race, Phillips' campaign must do well next week in New Hampshire — where Weaver guided Sanders victories in 2016 and 2020, but where Biden is not on the ballot this time

  • Weaver is the most seasoned operative on Phillips' small team, and his joining Phillips' renegade campaign against the president raised eyebrows among Biden's team and in Bernieworld.

Zoom in: Weaver told Axios that some Democrats were scared to join Phillips' campaign: "There's a tremendous amount of concern among people who work in politics about the kind of retribution that would come down from the [Democratic National Committee], or from the White House if people worked on this campaign."

  • "I happen not to give a damn."
  • Weaver is joined by campaign manager Zach Graumann, whose previous political work was managing entrepreneur Andrew Yang's long-shot presidential campaign in 2020.
  • "It's not a lot of Bernie people" on the Phillips campaign, Weaver said. Phillips "has sort of branded himself aesthetically as kind of a centrist figure, although I think if anyone looks at his voting record, you'll find he has voted for the entire Democratic agenda every time."

The intrigue: Weaver said he didn't talk with Sanders before deciding to join the primary challenge against Biden.

  • "We just took different different paths," he said, adding that Sanders is "a dear friend of mine and a person I will respect forever."

Reality check: Even a decent showing for Phillips in New Hampshire will be symbolic.

  • There are no delegates at stake because New Hampshire resisted Biden's effort to make South Carolina the first contest of the Democratic primary (Biden will not be on the ballot in New Hampshire but supporters are organizing a write-in campaign).

Zoom out: Sanders has argued for the past nine months that progressives should unite around Biden because the threat from likely GOP nominee Donald Trump is so severe.

  • Sanders has called Trump "an authoritarian, and a very, very dangerous person."
  • The vast majority of progressive lawmakers and operatives have followed Sanders' lead and rallied behind Biden — though some privately worry about his re-election prospects.

Recently, Sanders has been critical of Biden's messaging and has called on him to be more aggressive in addressing working-class concerns.

  • "Roosevelt didn't go around saying, 'Look at all I've done,'" Sanders recently told The Guardian, a seeming reference to Biden's focus on touting his big legislative packages and "Bidenomics."
  • "He should be proud of his accomplishments, but he's also got to say that he understands that there is a housing crisis, that people can't afford healthcare or prescription drugs or childcare — that he's trying, but he hasn't yet succeeded."

The other side: Weaver argues that it's too late and "Biden may be the only way to lose to Trump."

  • "We heard from the White House a year and a half ago: The polls will change. We heard a year ago: The polls will change. We're nine months out, and we're hearing still: The polls will change. They have changed, in fact. They've gotten worse" for Biden, Weaver said.
  • "What we're left with is the choice of: Do we stand with Biden and give the country back over to Trump, or do we do something else?"
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