Biden touts investment in rural areas in Minnesota, the home state of his primary challenger

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President Joe Biden speaks at Dutch Creek Farms in Northfield, Minn., Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden visited a family-run farm in Minnesota on Wednesday and held a fundraiser featuring many of the state's top Democrats, championing his administration's investments in rural America while flexing political muscle on the home turf of his new 2024 primary challenger, Rep. Dean Phillips.

The president announced more than $5 billion in spending, largely in rural areas. It will go toward better adapting agriculture to climate change, as well as expanding high-speed internet access and improving local infrastructure. The funding comes from infrastructure and inflation reduction laws which Biden helped champion through Congress.

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“Instead of exporting jobs overseas for cheaper labor, now we're creating jobs here and expanding American products and selling them overseas," Biden told a cheering crowd inside a barn at Dutch Creek Farms in Northfield, about 40 miles south of Minneapolis. “We're not only transforming rural communities, we're transforming our economy.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack accompanied Biden on the trip and is among top members of the president's Cabinet who will spend this week and next traveling to various states, promoting administration investments. Vilsack called Wednesday's announcement “an exciting opportunity to celebrate the importance of rural America" while Biden says his effort is “about investing in rural America” but also "restoring pride in rural communities that had been left behind for far too long.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the Minnesota swing was planned before Phillips announced his candidacy last week “and has no relationship” to the president's challenger. But the congressman is the only elected Democrat to campaign against him for the White House.

Phillips, 54, is a moderate from the largely well-to-do, comfortably Democratic Minneapolis suburbs. He has been saying since last year that Biden shouldn't be seeking reelection and should instead step aside to make way for a new generation. He points to polls showing voters, even many Democrats, concerned about the 80-year-old president's age and electability against Donald Trump, the former president and Republican front-runner.

Biden's trip, coming so soon after Phillips’ announcement, could allow the president to limit any potential support for his nascent primary challenger. Guests to the fundraiser, which followed the farm visit, included many top Minnesota Democrats and Gov. Tim Walz.

Phillips' campaign will feel “almost like a cold glass of water being thrown in his face," said Ken Martin, chair of Minnesota Democrats and a Democratic National Committee vice chair.

Martin is a friend of Phillips and recruited him to run for his House seat. But if Phillips believes that people are clamoring for alternatives to Biden, Martin said, “he may be alone in that thinking amongst Democratic Party leaders."

“There really does not seem to be as much of an opening here, as much as he might want, or think there is, or should be," he said. Martin also addressed the fundraiser, calling it one of the largest events of its kind for an incumbent president in Minnesota history.

Walz has been even more full-throated in his defense of Biden, releasing a fundraising email Friday on Biden's behalf before Phillips even formally got into the race titled “Minnesotans Love Joe Biden."

“I have to say this about Minnesota: it’s a great state, full of great people. And sometimes they do crazy things,” Walz wrote, such as making "political sideshows for themselves.”

As the trip unfolded, the White House has faced skepticism from some Muslim Americans for its staunch support of Israel’s military assault on Hamas in Gaza. Protesters gathered near the airport where Biden landed and later, more than 1,000 people marched through downtown Minneapolis, across the river from Biden's fundraiser. They carried Palestinian flags and signs that said “Stop Bombing Children,” “Free Palestine” and “Ceasefire now.”

The demonstrations couldn't be seen from the president's motorcade, but the use of bullhorns was heard outside the site. During his remarks at the fundraiser, Biden called for a humanitarian “pause” in the Israel-Hamas war long enough to get “prisoners” out.

Phillips, meanwhile, has faced criticism from some prominent Black Democrats for focusing his early campaign on New Hampshire, which is overwhelmingly white, in defiance of the new, Biden-championed 2024 Democratic primary calendar that has South Carolina going first. The move is meant to better empower Black and minority voters — but Biden also did far better as a 2020 Democratic primary candidate in South Carolina, which he won handily, than New Hampshire, where he finished fifth.

“Any serious Democratic candidate would understand that Black voters are the backbone of the Democratic Party,” said Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson. He said Phillips' White House run is “disrespectful to the voters of color.”

New Hampshire's primary, which officials are planning to hold in January ahead of South Carolina's on Feb. 3, is unsanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Biden won't appear on its ballot but every New Hampshire state senator and other party leaders are leading a write-in campaign on the president's behalf.

Phillips missed Biden's visit to his home turf, noting in a statement that he was holding "my first town hall in New Hampshire — which is celebrating its 103rd anniversary of hosting America’s first in the nation presidential primary.”

He also questioned the visit being preplanned, calling it “last minute” while also saying he was grateful to Biden for using the trip to "discuss the urgent issues affecting everyday Americans.”

Minnesota hasn’t backed a Republican for president since Richard Nixon in 1972. Trump narrowly lost the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and talked before the 2020 election of flipping the state before ultimately failing to do so. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said Biden will need to shore up Minnesota support for 2024, likening it to a swing state the president has visited more than any other, Pennsylvania.

“It is not a diehard, reliable blue state,” Belcher said. He noted Minnesota is part of the midwestern blue wall that includes Michigan and Wisconsin, and Biden "does not stand a chance if that blue wall does not stand."

“We’ve seen that blue wall, in past elections, be shaky,” Belcher said.

Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, who worked with Phillips as a member of the centrist House Problem Solvers Caucus and other legislative endeavors, said she has “an enormous amount of respect for Dean” but “I feel as though his likely platform would be very similar to the platform that he has voted for largely, which is President Biden’s agenda and legislative accomplishments."

"I don’t see a real differentiation,” Houlahan said. She also called Phillips a ”distraction" at a time when Democrats should be backing Biden "in a unified manner to allow him, and us, to complete work that we’ve all started together.”


Associated Press writer Mark Vancleave in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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