Republicans attacked Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Monday as the longtime environmental attorney and anti-vaccine activist launched a bid for the White House as an independent, reflecting increasing concern on the right that the former Democrat threatens to take votes away from former President Donald Trump in 2024.
The Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign took aim at Kennedy’s liberal background. At the same time, the nation’s Democrats stayed silent as Kennedy insisted in a Philadelphia speech he was leaving both political parties behind.
“Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values,” said Steven Cheung, spokesperson for Trump in a statement. He said Kennedy’s campaign was “nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy looking to cash in on his family’s name.”
The heated response exposes the unknowns that lie in Kennedy’s long-awaited decision to run as an independent. The move could impact the 2024 race, which looks to be heading toward a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, but it is still unclear how.
Kennedy was a member of one of the most famous families in Democrat politics and was running as a longshot and holds higher favorability ratings among the GOP than Democrats. Only two weeks ago, Trump said of RFK Jr., “I like him a lot. I’ve known him for a long time.”
Allies for Trump and Biden have sometimes questioned whether Kennedy would be a spoiler against their candidate.
“The truth is, they’re both right,” said Kennedy onstage Monday to thunderous applause. “My intention is to spoil it for both of them.”
Kennedy doesn’t want to be affiliated with either party
Speaking from Philadelphia’s Independence Mall on Monday, where America’s founding documents were adopted, Kennedy made it clear that he didn’t want to be affiliated with either party. He mentioned a “rising tide of discontent” in the country. Kennedy said he wanted to make a “new declaration of independence” — from the media, corporations, and the two major political parties.
Hundreds of supporters who gathered for Kennedy’s remarks held signs reading “Declare your independence” and at certain times chanting “RFK, all the way!” were excited about his announcement.
A diverse mix of disillusioned Trump voters and Democrats looking for change, and political outsiders who say their ideas don’t align with either party insisted Kennedy could unify them all.
“He’s going to win,” said a 40-year-old business owner from Delaware, Peter Pantazis. “I’ve been praying that he’s going to decentralize the campaign, get away from the party system, and actually be the candidate of the people for the people. And that’s what he announced today.”
“The last couple of years, I’ve been noticing the Republican Party’s been going a way I didn’t like,” said a disabled veteran from south Philadelphia, Brent Snyder. “Not that I agree with everything that’s happening to Trump, but I think right now he has more baggage than his country needs. The division right now is just terrible. We need someone to bring both sides together to make us work.”
Kennedy’s campaign has a long way to go to compete with the support, experience, and funding the Biden and Trump campaigns enjoy. His Monday announcement was delayed briefly when he arrived onstage, only to find his speech had yet to be loaded onto the teleprompter.
The announcement comes less than a week after the progressive activist Cornel West abandoned his bid as a Green Party candidate in favor of an independent White House run.
In the meantime, the centrist group No Labels has confirmed it is actively securing ballot access for a candidate who has yet to be named.
Because of the risk that Kennedy could pull votes away from the GOP, Trump allies have begun to circulate opposition research against Kennedy designed to damage his standing among potential conservative supporters.
The Republican National Committee published a fact sheet before Kennedy’s speech titled “Radical DEMOCRAT RFK Jr.” that lists the times he supported liberal ideas or politicians. The document also listed the times he supported conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic or “stolen-election claims” related to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections that Democrats lost to President George W. Bush.
Allies of Biden have dismissed Kennedy’s primary campaign as not serious.
Four of Kennedy’s eight surviving siblings issued a joint statement that denounced his candidacy and said his announcement saddened them.
“The decision of our brother Bobby to run as a third-party candidate against Joe Biden is dangerous to our country,” the statement read. “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision, or judgment.”
Tony Lyons, co-chairman and co-founder of American Values 2024, the super PAC that supports Kennedy, dismissed the comments as “part of a strategy to discredit him.”
“At his family dinner tables, they would disagree about everything, and that’s what democracy looks like,” said Lyons. “Families are allowed to disagree.”
Polls show far more Republicans than Democrats have a favorable opinion of Kennedy. He has also garnered support from far-right conservatives for his views, including his distrust of Covid-19 vaccines.
RFK Jr.’s anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, currently has a lawsuit that is pending against several news organizations, among them The Associated Press, and accused them of violating antitrust laws by taking action to identify misinformation, including about Covid-19 and vaccines for Covid-19.
Kennedy took leave from the organization when he announced he would run for president. However, he is listed as one of its attorneys in the lawsuit.