Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s pivot Monday to an independent run for president met immediate resistance from Republican leaders, who have concluded that his new effort threatens to cannibalize their vote share next year, helping to reelect President Biden.
The Republican National Committee greeted his announcement with a press release that described Kennedy as “just another radical, far-left Democrat,” with a number of talking points that could be used by the expansive network of conservative commentators who tend to take messaging cues from the party.
“Make no mistake — a Democrat in Independent’s clothing is still a Democrat. RFK Jr. cannot hide from his record of endorsing Hillary, supporting the Green New Deal, fighting against the Keystone Pipeline, and praising AOC’s tax hikes — he is your typical elitist liberal and voters won’t be fooled,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for former president Donald Trump’s campaign, echoed the condemnation. “Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values,” Cheung said in a statement. An “RFK candidacy is nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy to cash in on his family’s name.”
The attacks came as Democrats remained largely silent on Kennedy’s shift, reflecting a relative optimism among the party’s top strategists that Kennedy poses little threat to Biden as an independent candidate. Kennedy’s polling in the Democratic nomination fight had fallen in recent months, and current national polling shows higher approval ratings for Kennedy among Republican voters than Democratic voters.
Kennedy, in a speech Monday at an outdoor rally in Philadelphia, cast his new campaign as an attempt to disrupt the efforts of partisan leaders to pit Americans against themselves for personal gain. He signaled no shift in the underlying conspiratorial and populist theme of his campaign, the idea that the nation’s leaders, in politics, the media and business, have been secretly lying to the American people — and that he is best positioned to expose those lies.
Kennedy spoke Monday about American voters who had been “left behind” and “belittled by a smug elite that has rigged the game in its favor.’ That language echoes Trump’s appeals, though Kennedy has been a fierce critic of many aspects of Trump’s politics.
“Americans are wary and tired of the culture war, the phony slogans, the politicians who use the partisan blame game,” Kennedy said. “And people believe that the divisions are purposely orchestrated and getting us to hate each other is all part of the scam.”
He argued for a politics no longer defined by the binary debates, such as the merits of gun control and the morality of abortion. “As long as we are all feuding with each other, no one is coming over the castle walls,’ Kennedy said. “This hatred of each other is orchestrated.”
Kennedy joins the liberal academic Cornel West as the second major declared independent candidate. Neither has yet made significant progress in qualifying for state ballots, a requirement for winning electoral college votes. Another effort, helmed by the centrist group No Labels, is considering announcing a third-party effort next year, and the Libertarian Party, which has ballot access in most states, is expected to hold a nominating meeting in May.
Each of the independent campaigns will need to consistently register 15 percent support in national polls to qualify for the general-election debates next year, under the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is planning to host the contests. The Republican and Democratic nominees typically attend those forums, though no agreements have been struck for 2024 so far.
Kennedy is the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the son of former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated in the 1960s. His family is divided on his campaign, with some in attendance supporting his speech Monday. Four of his siblings released a statement Monday denouncing his independent bid as “dangerous for the country.”
“Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment,” wrote Rory Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. “Today’s announcement is deeply saddening for us.”
Republicans had initially cheered Kennedy’s campaign as a Democrat, because he argued that Biden and his advisers were responsible for creating the conditions of the war in Ukraine, that they attacked freedom of speech by trying to limit the public debate over vaccine safety and that they sold out the federal regulatory state to corporate interests. Both Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) have praised parts of Kennedy’s campaign.
Democrats also initially expressed concern, as Kennedy registered the support of about 1 in 5 Democrats in some polls. But those numbers have since fallen. Top Democrats now believe his appeal among Biden voters is limited by other positions he has taken, including the false claim that coronavirus vaccines have killed more people than they have saved from death, a claim that hinges in part on a misreading of an early study of one of the vaccines.
For the moment, Republicans have reached the same conclusion. Kennedy’s invitation to speak at an upcoming Nevada meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee has also caused frustration within Republican leadership circles, who do not want to elevate his message.
“We have to attack him,” said a Republican familiar with the party’s strategy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations. “He would hurt the eventual nominee.”