The Kennedy name may not be so politically potent as it once was. But it still resonates in some Democratic circles, especially in northern New England, where a 1960 New Hampshire primary win set Massachusetts Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s course to win his party’s nomination and the presidency. Sixty-three years after that historic win, JFK’s most prominent, and most controversial, nephew is counting on New Hampshire Democrats to boost an unlikely bid by the latest in a long line of Kennedys to seek the nation’s highest office.
It’s a strategy that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been meticulously putting in place for months. Now, as he formalizes plans to challenge President Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, it will be put to the test.
On Wednesday, RFK Jr. filed paperwork that allows him to begin fundraising for a presidential bid. Then, on Thursday, his efficient if perhaps overly enthusiastic “Team Kennedy” campaign announced “a historic event on Wednesday, April 19 when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.” Pundits and Democratic partisans were quick to dismiss Kennedy’s prospects because of his long history of anti-vaccine activism—not a popular stance in a Democratic Party where members have a reputation for being keen to get jabs and trusting science. But he is a Kennedy, which still may count for something in American politics. And he has a plan, which centers on regional name-recognition and bitterness over the decision of the Democratic National Committee to yank New Hampshire’s status as the first of the party’s nominating primaries.
New Hampshire Democrats are mad about the shift. New Hampshire officials, from both parties, have pledged to go ahead with some of sort of first-in-the-nation primary. And Kennedy clearly thinks this gives him an opening.
The unannounced candidate appeared last month at a St. Anselm College forum in Manchester, where prospective presidential contenders often test the waters with appearances organized in conjunction with the school’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics. When asked if he might seek the Democratic nod in 2024, he coyly replied that he was “thinking about it.” But there was every indication then that he had moved beyond the thinking stage and was headed toward making the run. During his visit to the state, the son of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy positioned himself as a Democrat who would run as a champion of the environment, an advocate for working-class families, and a critic of corporate power. He explained on Twitter, “If I run, my top priority will be to end the corrupt merger between state and corporate power that has ruined our economy, shattered the middle class, polluted our landscapes and waters, poisoned our children, and robbed us of our values and freedoms.”
Mounting a primary challenge to any incumbent president is difficult, although RFK Jr.’s father did so with considerable success in the haunted 1968 campaign that began as a direct challenge to President Lyndon Johnson and ended after the candidate’s California primary win with an assassination that shook the nation to its core. But a Kennedy bid in 2024 looks especially daunting. What differentiates RFK Jr.’s anticipated candidacy from those of his uncles, John and Ted, and his father, is not just that this Kennedy has never held elective office. It is his long record of vaccine skepticism that has plenty of observers dismissing his primary as a nonstarter with Democrats loyalists.
“I was invited to attend his event at the Institute for Politics. My response was, you won’t find me inside. You’ll find me outside picketing,” said Arnie Arnesen, a former state legislator and a New Hampshire Democratic gubernatorial nominee who is now a popular radio personality in the state. “I understand that he has a record as an environmentalist. But he’s also got a record on vaccines. You can’t embrace climate science and reject public-health science.”
Nor does it help that Kennedy was, according to a post from CBS News reporter Robert Costa, encouraged to run by former Trump White House aide Steve Bannon.
But not everyone writes Kennedy off. Veteran Democratic State Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a longtime friend and supporter of Biden, attended the St. Anselm event and said of Kennedy, “He’s got the name, and that opens a lot of doors.”
That’s what Kennedy is betting on, as New Hampshire officials say they will hold a Democratic primary before South Carolina, even if the DNC does not recognize it. If the media pays attention to the New Hampshire race on the Democratic side, in which Biden would likely face challenges from not just Kennedy but also 2020 Democratic presidential contender Marianne Williamson, that contest could become a test for the sitting president. And if Kennedy were to attract a credible level of support—even if it were based on nostalgia, name recognition, and protest votes—that could shake up the race as it moves to other states.
“The fact is we’re going to be first,” New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley said in an interview this week. Buckley said he hoped Biden would file to run in a first-in-the-nation Democratic primary and win it “heartily.” But he added, “If he chooses not to participate in it, that just gives an opportunity for multiple others to make a name for themselves.”
Kennedy is very likely to be the most prominent of the “multiple others.” For a candidate that faces as many real and potential liabilities as does Kennedy, New Hampshire is critical. And he has positioned himself as the fiercest defender of the state’s status as a definitional stop on the presidential primary calendar.
In January, Kennedy wrote an open letter to the DNC urging party leaders “not to interfere in New Hampshire’s plan to hold the nation’s first primary.” In February, after the DNC gave the top primary slot to Biden-friendly South Carolina, he penned an op-ed for New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, in which he wrote,
I have been a Democrat my whole life. My family members are Democrats and have served America in many capacities, from local office to the White House, from the battlefields of World War II to the battlegrounds of the Civil Rights Movement. And I am deeply disappointed that the Democratic National Committee voted last week to end New Hampshire’s long tradition of hosting the party’s first presidential primary.
He doubled down on that message when he appeared at St. Anselm, as he undoubtedly will in upcoming campaign stops.
But Arnesen rejected Kennedy’s message as “pandering,” and suggested that most New Hampshire Democrats would see through it. “He’s got a name. He’s got the primary issue, and maybe he’s got the potential for a protest vote,” she said. “But I don’t think it will get him all that far.” And if a Kennedy can’t get all that far in New Hampshire—especially after putting so much effort into appealing to the state’s bruised ego—it’s hard to see where he goes next.