Dean Phillips Launches Rare US Rep Challenge to Party’s Sitting President

The Minnesotan is just the third U.S. Representative to attempt such a challenge since 1828

Of the more than 200 non-fringe presidential candidacies since 1972, just over a dozen were challengers to an incumbent from their own party. Three-term Minnesota U.S. Representative Dean Phillips added his name to that list last Friday.

Almost all of these candidates appeared on at least one primary ballot, but only two of them won any contests (Republican Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Democrat Ted Kennedy in 1980).

Rep. Phillips now joins 1972 GOP challengers Pete McCloskey of California and John Ashbrook of Ohio as the only sitting U.S. House members to challenge their party’s sitting president – not simply during the modern primary era, but since the dawn of the two-party system in 1828.

McCloskey, a three-term liberal Republican, won double-digit support against President Richard Nixon in three states, peaking in the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire (19.8 percent). He also won 13.5 percent in Massachusetts and 10.4 percent in Oregon after suspending his campaign on March 10th.

Ashbrook was a conservative six-term U.S. Representative who failed to reach 10 percent in any primary but did not withdraw until the day after the final contests on June 6th.

The remaining intra-party challengers to an incumbent president over the last 50 years include sitting or former governors Ronald Reagan (1976), Jerry Brown (1980), Cliff Finch (1980), and Bill Weld (2020), U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (1980), former U.S. Representatives Joe Walsh (2020) and Mark Sanford (2020, also a former governor), conservative commentator Pat Buchanan (1992), author Marianne Williamson (2024), and attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. (2024, prior to switching to an independent bid).

Before 1972, no sitting U.S. Representative challenged an incumbent president from their own party.

[Note: A delegation pledged to the nomination of freshman California U.S. Representative John McGroarty did qualify for his state’s May 5th Democratic primary ballot against Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. McGroarty won 6.4 percent but did not appear on any other primary ballot and was not nominated at the national convention that June].

Sitting U.S. Representatives have not been shy in launching open seat presidential bids or when the incumbent is from the opposing party: Democrats Wilbur Mills of Arkansas (1972), Patsy Mink of Hawaii (1972), Shirley Chisholm of New York (1972), Mo Udall of Arizona (1976), Dick Gephardt of Missouri (1988, 2004), James Traficant of Ohio (1988), Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (2004, 2008), Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (2020), Tim Ryan of Ohio (2020), Seth Moulton of Massachusetts (2020), and Eric Swalwell of California (2020) and Republicans John Anderson of Illinois (1980), Phil Crane of Illinois (1980), Bob Dornan of California (1996), John Kasich of Ohio (2000), Duncan Hunter of California (2008), Ron Paul of Texas (2008, 2012), Tom Tancredo of Colorado (2008), Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota (2012), and Thad McCotter of Michigan (2012) all sought the presidency since 1972.

Unlike McCloskey and Ashbrook, Phillips could have a good showing in the New Hampshire primary with President Biden not filing to appear on the ballot and Marianne Williamson the only other semi-known candidate. Tens of thousands of New Hampshire voters may still write-in Biden’s name as they did in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson eked out a 7.7-point plurality win against Minnesota U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy prior to announcing his decision not to run for another term.

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