Non-white Democrats upset as Dean Phillips expected to launch challenge to Biden in New Hampshire

Bennie Thompson called it "divisive" and "disrespectful" to a key voting bloc.

October 26, 2023, 6:19 PM

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips' expected decision to launch a long shot Democratic primary challenge against President Joe Biden on Friday has upset several major non-white members of the party who think him starting a campaign by filing for the New Hampshire primary will be emblematic of what they argued was his "disregard" for Democrats' emphasis on the South and diverse voters.

"He's skipping a very diverse state to go to a non-diverse state," one senior Black Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told ABC News, adding, "I think that is a telltale sign of where your values are."

Phillips' team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

He has repeatedly teased a bid against Biden in the primary but hasn't confirmed one yet, though he is thought to be gearing up to file for New Hampshire's nominating contest on Friday -- the deadline to enter.

"I think the country would be well served by a new generation of compelling, well-prepared, dynamic Democrats to step up," Phillips, a former member of House Democratic leadership, said last year.

He noted then that "I have respect for Joe Biden. I think he has -- despite some mistakes and some missteps, despite his age -- I think he's a man of decency, of good principle, of compassion, of empathy, and of strength."

Beginning a campaign with New Hampshire, which has traditionally been the nation's first primary state, would ensure Phillips receives the traditional media attention the state attracts during presidential cycles.

Phillips did not file to run in Nevada's Democratic primary against Biden and author and speaker Marianne Williamson, another long shot candidate, and he has only a few weeks to file to be in South Carolina's Democratic primary.

Rep. Dean Phillips walks down the House steps after the last votes of the week in the Capitol, April 20, 2023.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Democrats who spoke with ABC News said they feel Phillips is snubbing South Carolina, which was selected by the Democratic National Committee and backed by Biden to lead the party's new nominating calendar because it is seen as better representing the geographic and racial diversity of the party's voters, including Black Democrats, a key bloc.

Nevada will follow South Carolina in the new calendar.

That change drew the ire of New Hampshire Democrats, who themselves feel slighted in the calendar shuffle and argue New Hampshire remains more competitive in the general election than South Carolina. As a result of the scheduling dispute, at least some of the state's delegates are likely to be stripped away.

The senior Black Democrat suggested that by avoiding South Carolina, Phillips would be dodging scrutiny and questions from the sizable share of Black voters there.

"I think it's BS and it's all about him," this person said.

Phillips has also not consulted the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), an influential group of colleagues when it comes to getting a better understanding of the constituency, CBC member and institute chair Rep. Bennie Thompson told ABC News.

Thompson, D-Miss., said he and other Black congressional leaders were "concerned" at the lack of outreach, and whatever overtures Phillips may have made privately have "not resonated."

Thompson said he finds the idea of a Phillips launch in New Hampshire "divisive and it's disrespectful to a large population and support base for the Democratic Party."

The South Carolina Democratic Party told ABC that Phillips has not made contact with them. The deadline for him to file for the state primary is Nov 10.

President Joe Biden, left, speaks with Rep. Bennie Thompson at the White House in Washington, DC, July 25, 2023.
Samuel Corum/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"The congressman from Minnesota's choice to disregard South Carolina's historic first in the nation primary, where Black voters, rural voters, and Southern voters will finally be at the forefront ... is saying the quiet part out loud," the state chair, Christale Spain, said. "He's an unserious candidate."

Phillips has not reached out to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus either, the group's chair, Rep. Nanette Barragán said.

Barragán, D-Calif., like other leading Democrats, has pledged support for Biden's reelection -- unity that has also attracted criticism from Williamson and voices like Phillips, who say the party should seek what they see as fresh leaders given Biden's poor approval ratings.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic political strategist, called Phillips' potential preference for New Hampshire a mistake because of South Carolina's larger political importance in the 2024 primary race.

"I think he'll quickly learn that the road to Heaven in the White House goes through South Carolina. And you can't get any political traction without having strong equal support in South Carolina," Seawright said.

Biden's own fortunes were reversed during his 2020 run after he won the South Carolina primary.

"For those of us who've labored long and hard to grow upon and to make sure that the party represents America … I think he's taken it in a different direction," the senior Democrat said of Phillips. "And that direction is a path to losing, not winning."

ABC News' Isabella Murray contributed to this report.