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Biden opponent Dean Phillips sees little support from past donors

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. is seeing little support for his longshot primary bid against President Joe Biden from a group of power brokers in his home state who have donated to his past successful runs for Congress, according to people familiar with the matter.

Phillips, a businessman who first got elected in 2018 to the House of Representatives, has been asked by a few of his previous financial backers to return their donations or demand he won’t use those funds for his presidential campaign.

Others have decided not to help Phillips run for president but have not gone as far demanding their money gets returned. These former boosters explained to CNBC that they support Biden and are not in favor of the Minnesota congressman’s primary bid.

Phillips announced he was running for president against Biden in late October, citing his belief that the commander in chief cannot win reelection. A Morning Consult poll released last week shows Phillips with only 4% of support among potential Democratic primary voters.

Biden, on the other hand, has 73% support in the same poll, despite a new New York Times/ Siena College survey showing the president is falling behind expected GOP nominee Donald Trump in key states such as Michigan and Georgia. A spokesperson for Phillips’ campaign did not return a request for comment.

Phillips will need to raise millions of dollars if he’s going to have any chance of raising his national profile against an incumbent president. He will likely have to look outside the group of donors from Minnesota who have helped him win three congressional races, according to Ken Martin, the chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is supporting Biden’s candidacy. Biden won the state over Trump by around 7 percentage points during the 2020 election.

“I haven’t heard from one donor that thinks this is a good idea,” Martin said. “I don’t talk to all of his donors, but I talk to a lot of donors.”

Out of the more than $10 million Phillips has raised since first running for Congress in 2018, a vast majority of contributions have come from Minnesota. During his successful 2022 reelection bid, Phillips raised around 82% of his more than $2 million in donations from in-state donors, with nearly $1.5 million coming from backers based in Minnesota, according to data from the nonpartisan organization OpenSecrets.

Vance Opperman, a Democratic Party fundraiser who Twin Cities Business magazine called “the ultimate influencer” in Minnesota, told CNBC in an interview that he texted Phillips and requested that his past donations to the congressional campaign not to be used in his run against Biden. Opperman said Phillips told him his contributions would not be used for the primary run versus Biden.

“No contribution of yours to my congressional campaign will be used in any manner other than that of what it was intended via my congressional campaign,” Phillips told Opperman in a text message, according to the longtime Democratic fundraiser.

“We’ve had weekly contact with all the people who write checks toward Democrats. This topic [Phillips running for president] has come up. Nobody is going to give to him,” Opperman explained.

Opperman donated $5,800 to Phillips in 2021, according to Federal Election Commission records. Phillips’ congressional political operation has over $300,000 on hand that can be legally transferred to his presidential campaign committee, according to the records. His congressional campaign so far this cycle has raised more than $730,000.

Opperman has been a Biden ally for years and said he helped organize a fundraiser for the president’s campaign in Minnesota that took place after Phillips announced his run for president.

Opperman said that after it become evident earlier this year that Phillips was at least considering running for president, he was forced to cancel a September fundraising event for the Minnesota’s congressman’s reelection campaign. He said almost half of the 20 invitees had canceled their planned attendance.

But it’s not just Opperman who doesn’t want to help Phillips with his latest political effort.

James Deal, the former chairman of the NAU Country Insurance Company, a massive farmland insurance business that operates across the country, recently requested his donations to Phillips get returned, according to an email from his wife that was sent to the Phillips campaign.

“On behalf of myself and my husband, Jim Deal, we would like a refund of our contributions to your congressional campaign. We are very disappointed in Dean’s decision to challenge our President Joe Biden,” Deal’s wife, Pamela, said in an email to the Phillips campaign earlier this month.

Jim and Pamela Deal combined to give $11,200 to Phillips campaign during the 2022 election cycle, according to FEC records. They gave an additional $13,200 in late June. The couple did not return a request for comment.

Sam Kaplan, a Minnesota-based attorney who has donated to Phillips’ campaign, is among the contributors that told CNBC they won’t help Phillips, but have yet to ask for their money back.

“I don’t think he has a chance,” Kaplan told CNBC.

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