🔒 RFK Jr.’s candidacy: An enigma or a threat to the political establishment?

In a political landscape teeming with familiar names, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. emerges as a paradoxical figure: claiming outsider status while cashing in on his iconic surname. With Nicole Shanahan as his running mate and financial backbone, Kennedy rides a wave of controversy, challenging both Biden and Trump. But as Democrats scramble to decipher his impact, his blend of progressive ideals and conspiratorial rhetoric complicates their strategy. Can they tarnish his legacy before he upends the election?

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

By Nia-Malika Henderson

Quick. Name the presidential candidate who owes his political career to his last name. If you guessed Robert F. Kennedy Jr., you are correct! ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Kennedy is running for president as an independent and claiming to be an outsider. But the political scion is trading on his name like any other good-ole-boy insider. He’s what the kids like to call a nepo baby. He hates “the system” yet kind of is the system, drawing millions from a conservative banking heir to fund his campaign. Oh, and he named another big donor, Nicole Shanahan, a tech millionaire (or billionaire by marriage), to be his running mate/piggybank. Talk about buying access. But yes, let’s decry the influence of money in politics!

The big question about Kennedy, whose biggest claim to fame besides his name is trafficking in conspiracy theories, is who he hurts more in the general election, President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump. The short answer is that it is too early to know. Still, there are some indications that he hurts Biden slightly more. At least right now. 

For instance, a Quinnipiac University poll shows Biden up by three points, 48% to 45%, in a head-to-head matchup against Trump. But the addition of several third-party challengers drops him down to 38% with Trump getting 39% and Kennedy at 13%. Green Party candidate Jill Stein and independent candidate Cornel West trail behind at 4% and 3% respectively. (It’s still unclear how many state ballots these candidates will be on). 

Biden’s support drops by 10 points compared to Kennedy’s 6 points because of Kennedy’s relative strength among young, Black and Latino voters — core Democratic constituencies. This is why Trump claimed that he loves that Kennedy is running and Senator Tim Scott said that he had “no doubt” that Kennedy would hurt Biden,  not Trump But Scott, a potential Trump running mate, should have some doubts because the data really isn’t clear. Democrats are certainly more worried about Kennedy than Trump and his allies seem to be, and Democrats concede that Kennedy pulls slightly more voters  from Biden than Trump. And in a margin of error race in a few swing states, every vote will matter.

“Our campaign is a spoiler all right,” Kennedy said during his running mate announcement. “It is a spoiler for President Biden and for President Trump.”

Democrats, smartly, have assembled a team of people and talking points to attack Kennedy. Still, it’s going to be a complicated effort because of the matrix of issues and conspiratorial stances that Kennedy has taken. 

Before the anti-vaccine movement went MAGA, it was fringe, granola progressives who espoused those views. Kennedy’s anti-war stance is both progressive and MAGA. He has said Prozac and other anti-depressants are linked to mass shootings, a theory that has no basis in fact. His name draws in Democrats and his tinfoil hat theories and use of words like “uniparty” draw in the so-called “double haters” who are done with the two-party system and think both candidates are too old.

At 70, Kennedy isn’t young, but Shanahan, at 38, is. Their speeches announcing her addition to the ticket provided a roadmap for who they think they appeal to.

Kennedy started by mentioning that he’d won the endorsement of a Native American tribe (the Mu-wek-ma Oh-lone), went on to talk about his dad campaigning in Oakland and meeting with African Americans, and then threw in how Trump and Biden “both worked to close our Main Street businesses for a year without scientific evidence or democratic process” during the Covid pandemic.

“Their policies transferred $4 trillion from the middle class to a new oligarchy of billionaires,” Kennedy claimed. “They each want us to hate and fear the other guy. But to young Americans, they look like two sides of the same coin.” 

Shanahan, an Asian-American philanthropist, technologist and lawyer who has faced little scrutiny so far, echoed this appeal to young voters in her speech.

“People talk about my age. It is true, I will be the youngest vice president in American history. Let me tell you why so many of us young people have turned away from politics,” she said, grouping herself with average non-millionaire millennials. “It’s because we lost hope that change would ever come from the system.” 

(Slight dig at Barack Obama’s hope and change rhetoric maybe?)

Kennedy has particularly targeted young men, appearing shirtless on X in a workout video (pushups could use some work), and with rap icon Eric B. at a food pantry in Queens.  

And then there is his (cringe) appearance on a rap song called “Standing on Bidness.”

“I’m Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. You don’t have to believe the lies, you don’t have to take sides, you can help me heal the divide,” he says (not raps!) in a compilation that includes Drumma Boy, Boosie Badass and Hot Boy Turk. “As president of the United States, I’ll be standing on bidness and helping the community.”

Yes, it is as awful as it sounds. 

(Standing on bidness means to take care of your obligations and to be about your grind. Also, just imagine if Hillary Clinton appeared on a rap album.)

Of the third-party threats, Kennedy has emerged as the most serious. West seems to have faded after gaining some attention early on and raising anxiety levels in the White House. No Labels is a non-factor so far, with Chris Christie declining to run on their ticket and few high profile names left to be considered. It seems increasingly likely that their efforts could fizzle. Which leaves Kennedy to soak up all the attention and ire. Shanahan’s millions will give his ballot access efforts a boost. He’s already on the ballot in Utah, and his campaign says they have gathered enough signatures for Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. Though challenges remain — the signatures he gathered in Nevada, for instance, appear to be invalid because they were collected before he named a running mate.  

Most of Kennedy’s relatives are backing Biden, with even his own siblings saying that he doesn’t have the vision or values of their father. Dozens of his relatives posed with Biden, the second Irish-American and Catholic president, at the White House for St. Patrick’s Day. They were especially irked that Kennedy’s campaign ran a $4 million Super Bowl ad that was a rip-off of a famous 1960 John F. Kennedy ad— Shanahan bankrolled it.

Even with his name, Kennedy remains a relatively blank canvas for most voters. Shanahan herself said that initially she didn’t think much of Kennedy because she didn’t know much about him. Over these next many months Democrats will make sure voters, particularly low-information voters, know much more about Kennedy and his running mate.

Former President Obama could come in handy in these efforts. Remember his viral takedowns of Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race?  Kennedy’s name and family legacy are the entry point for many voters, but Democrats, especially, will aim to make him synonymous with crazy, fringe, and dangerous ideas and dampen his standing by November. And key to that should be telling voters that Kennedy and his running mate are bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires— more AstroTurf than grassroots movement. 

Read also:

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

Visited 263 times, 7 visit(s) today