When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. came to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in March, state Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley was there to greet him in the front row, along with state Senate Democratic leader Donna Soucy and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro. RFK, Jr. even gave them all a shoutout from on stage.
But when Kennedy stood before thousands of supporters on the lawn of Independence Hall in Philadelphia Monday to announce he was running for president as an independent, Buckley’s attitude was very different.
“Let’s be clear: RFK, Jr. was never running as a Democrat,” Buckley posted on social media.
The question political prognosticators are asking is whether Kennedy’s independent bid will pull more votes away from Trump, or incumbent Democrat Joe Biden.
“I am here to join all of you to make a new Declaration of Independence for our entire nation,” Kennedy said in Philadelphia.
“We declare independence from the two political parties and the corrupt interests that dominate them, and the entire rigged system of rancor and rage, corruption and lies, that has turned government officials into indentured servants of their corporate bosses.
“We declare our independence from these corrupting powers because they are incompatible with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that our original Declaration of Independence invoked in 1776.”
Kennedy, 69, a scion of the Kennedy Democratic political dynasty, is the son of Robert F. Kennedy and the nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy. Both his father and uncle were assassinated. He acknowledged it was painful to leave a party his family helped lead, but he had concluded there was no other choice in order to make real change for the country.
Kennedy is an environmental lawyer and a writer. Many of his ideas are considered outside mainstream dogma, particularly on vaccines and various public health issues. Many accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist, and polls show he is unpopular among likely Democratic primary voters.
The CNN New Hampshire Primary Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in September, found just nine percent of Granite State Democrats were backing Kennedy over Biden. And just 11 percent of progressives picked RFK, Jr.
How his candidacy will affect the reelection campaigns of President Joe Biden or the presumptive GOP nominee, former President Donald Trump, is an open question.
“RFK Jr. stands as the first significant third-party (or) independent candidate since Ross Perot. He’s polled well into double digits against Joe Biden among Democrats but also has significant support among Republicans. It’s hard to tell at this point into which bucket he will dig deeper,” said political consultant Charlie Gerow, CEO of Quantum Communications in Harrisburg, Pa.
In the speech, Gerow noted, the sort of independence Kennedy declared was “more than being independent of the two existing parties. He was also declaring independence from tribal thinking. It is to be free of the reflex of taking sides. Instead of ‘Which side are you on?’ it asks, ‘What do you care about? What do your children need? What are your troubles? Who do you love?’ Because our country is never going heal if the only formula is for one half of the population to beat the other in pitched battle.”
Some of Trump’s supporters fear Kennedy may draw as much support away from Trump as from Biden.
Jason Miller, a Trump advisor, said on X, “More than two decades of Kennedy’s own statements, social media posts, and even arrest records reveal a candidate who has repeatedly espoused extreme environmentalist and radical socialist beliefs.”
And in another sign the GOP is worried, the Republican National Committee released a list Monday entitled “23 reasons to oppose the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.” It included references to his support for a ban on fracking and his support for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
The good news for Buckley and the New Hampshire Democrats is that, with RFK, Jr. on the ballot, President Joe Biden may avoid a potentially embarrassing performance as a write-in candidate. Which, as of now, it appears Biden will be.
“We believe the President’s name will not be on the ballot,” Buckley told ABC News.