On the trail: Steve Shurtleff breaks with Biden, endorses Dean Phillips

New Hampshire Speaker Steve Shurtleff calls the house to vote on an override bill on Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at the State House.

New Hampshire Speaker Steve Shurtleff calls the house to vote on an override bill on Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at the State House. GEOFF FORESTER

After signing a declaration of candidacy to run for president, Dean Phillips walked out of the New Hampshire Statehouse to address the crowd Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 Concord, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)

After signing a declaration of candidacy to run for president, Dean Phillips walked out of the New Hampshire Statehouse to address the crowd Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 Concord, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP) Glen Stubbe


For the Monitor

Published: 11-02-2023 10:47 AM

Former state House Speaker Steve Shurtleff says he’ll help U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips “wherever I can” as the three-term moderate Democrat from Minnesota wages an uphill primary challenge against President Joe Biden.

Shurtleff, a longtime supporter of the president, worked on Biden’s short-lived 2008 presidential campaign and co-chaired the then-former vice president’s 2020 campaign in New Hampshire. He introduced Phillips on Thursday night at the presidential candidate’s first town hall in the Granite State.

A day earlier, in a radio appearance with Phillips on the morning talk program “New Hampshire Today,” the Vietnam War veteran, retired deputy U.S. Marshal, longtime state representative and former at large member of the Concord City Council (2007-2018) endorsed the congressman.

In an interview with the Monitor, Shurtleff reiterated that the reason he isn’t supporting Biden as he seeks another four-year term in the White House is the upending of New Hampshire’s lead-off primary position in the Democratic nominating calendar.

“That’s 90% of it right there,” he emphasized.

The president nearly a year ago proposed a nominating calendar for the 2024 election cycle that booted New Hampshire from its century-old first-in-the-nation primary position and replaced it with South Carolina, a much more diverse state. Four years ago, Biden came in a dismal fifth in New Hampshire before winning South Carolina in a landslide, which propelled him toward the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency.

The Democratic National Committee earlier this year overwhelmingly approved the calendar change proposed by the president. But New Hampshire is on course to leapfrog South Carolina as it honors a half-century-old state law that mandates it holds the first presidential primary.

With the state on course to hold an unsanctioned Democrat contest, the president’s reelection campaign last week announced that Biden wouldn’t file to place his name on the New Hampshire ballot. On Monday, top Democrats in the state launched a write-in campaign for the president.

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“I’m so proud of our primary,” Shurtleff stressed. “We take it very seriously.”

And he spotlighted that “I was very upset with what the president tried to do.”

But Shurtleff says his backing of Phillips, a multi-millionaire businessman and co-founder of a successful gelato company who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, isn’t a protest endorsement.

Shurtleff shared that he met and had lunch earlier this year with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – the environmental lawyer, high-profile vaccine critic, and scion of arguably the nation’s most famous family political dynasty – who launched a Democrat primary challenge against Biden in April before switching to an independent White House run a month ago.

“He asked me for his endorsement,” Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff said that while he respected Kennedy’s work on the environment, he told the candidate that “there are other things that I just can never agree with you,” as he told Kennedy that he couldn’t endorse him.

But Shurtleff said he was attracted to Phillips by the lawmaker’s “spirit of bipartisanship.” Helping to seal the deal was when Shurtleff learned that Phillips’ birth father died in the Vietnam War. “There’s a special bond between all veterans but especially those of us who served in Vietnam,” Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff told the Monitor that he’ll help Phillips as much as he can going forward, and in a self-deprecating joke said “I always think that maybe I’m introducing him to make him sound even better when he speaks.”

Biden backers launch write-in effort

Aiming to prevent the president from suffering an electoral embarrassment in the New Hampshire primary, some of the biggest names in New Hampshire Democratic circles launched a ballot write-in effort on his behalf.

“The fate of our democracy itself hangs in the balance in the 2024 election,” the group’s website warns.

And an email from the group’s leaders highlighted that “more than 100 grassroots leaders and volunteers from across New Hampshire are launching “Write-in Biden,” a statewide effort to encourage New Hampshire voters to commit to writing in Joe Biden during the 2024 NH Presidential Primary this winter.”

The leaders of the effort are emphasizing that neither the president’s 2024 re-election campaign nor the New Hampshire Democratic Party are involved in the write-in effort.

“None. Absolutely none,” one of the group’s leaders – veteran Democratic strategist Jim Demers – told the Monitor when asked if there was any communication with the Biden campaign. “We have not heard anything from them…. It truly is a citizens’ grassroots effort.”

And Demers said Phillips jumping into the race last week had nothing to do with the timing of their launch.

Pointing to the mass shooting last week in neighboring Maine, Demers said, “We actually postponed announcing on Friday because everyone was extremely uncomfortable considering the news from our next-door state – Maine – so we held off until today.

“Dean Phillips’ entry into the race has no bearing on this. The write-in effort started organizing weeks ago, before he entered the race,” he emphasized.

Along with Demers, Kathy Sullivan, a former state Democratic Party chair who later served as one of New Hampshire’s two members on the Democratic National Committee, is spearheading the push.

Backing the effort are all 10 of the party’s state senators, dozens of state representatives, both of its 2024 gubernatorial candidates, and scores of prominent current and former party leaders and elected officials.

But the list didn’t include the four members of New Hampshire’s all Democratic congressional delegation Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, who are both former governors, and Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas. Kuster later spotlighted on social media that she supports the write-in effort.

Demers emphasized that the effort is to “educate New Hampshire voters on their ability and right to write in President Biden, and how to do it is going to be the goal of this grassroots effort. He said he anticipates hiring staff in the coming weeks. But he added that the group’s filing with the Federal Elections Commission “allows for only grassroots work. It does not permit digital or direct mail to go out from this committee.”

While the 80-year-old president is the commanding frontrunner for re-nomination, polls indicate Biden faces mounting concerns over his age. Those surveys also suggest that many Americans, including plenty of Democrats, don’t want the president to seek a second term in the White House.

And there are concerns among Granite Staters that the move by the president and the DNC to revamp the nominating calendar, and Biden’s absence from the primary ballot, could serve as another distraction for Biden in 2024.

Besides Phillips, the president was already facing a long-shot primary challenge from bestselling author and spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson, who is making her second straight White House run.

Early 2028 moves?

Progressive Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna co-chaired Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.

When it comes to 2024, Khanna says he’s 100% behind the effort to re-elect Biden.

“I do whatever the president tells me when it comes to 2024 and his team,” Khanna told this reporter. “I’m a foot soldier when it comes to making sure he gets re-elected.”

But that mission may pay dividends for Khanna in 2028, when 47-year-old politician from California may have national aspirations.

Khanna spoke after participating in a debate with Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy on Wednesday. The cordial showdown over policy differences took place at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, a must-stop in the traditional first-in-the-nation presidential primary state for current and potential future White House hopefuls.

Khanna has made multiple trips to New Hampshire over the past year and a half. And in May he headlined the McIntyre-Shaheen gala, which is the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s largest annual fundraiser. The visits have sparked speculation about a possible 2028 presidential run.

“We’ve got to first win 2024, and that’s what’s on my mind. But I love the state. It’s a state where you sneeze and the nation gets to hear you. And so, for me, it’s a way of getting my ideas out,” Khanna said when asked about any 2028 ambitions.