Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has lurched rightward after publicizing his independence from both political parties this month.
Anticipating the general election, Kennedy has styled himself as the choice for voters seeking candidates outside of the fray. He doesn’t endorse Democrats’ or Republicans’ ways of governing and has taken steps to create distance between his bid and the establishment figures opposing him.
But the attorney and anti-vax activist has nonetheless veered closer toward conservatism, controversial figureheads and far-right theories after switching parties, breaking from liberals dissatisfied with President Biden and raising Republicans’ worries that he could nab votes from their side.
“I think that he is a lot of things, but I don’t think he’s a dummy,” said Brian Seitchik, a Republican strategist and former Trump campaign veteran. “Now that he’s moved into running as an independent, I think his specific policy positions are frankly going to matter more.”
“On the surface, those positions are going to more appeal to Republican voters and therefore pull votes out of Donald Trump,” he said.
A significant sign of Kennedy’s shift came when his campaign manager, Dennis Kucinich, a stalwart progressive, abruptly departed his role just days after the candidate announced his independent bid during a speech in Philadelphia.
Kucinich, a former Ohio congressman and Cleveland mayor, teed up Kennedy’s announcement, listing off all the ways in which he is needed to quell the nation’s partisan fever. Just four days later, he was out. After helping to build the operation for roughly five months, Kucinich was replaced by Kennedy’s daughter-in-law, Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, a former CIA officer. The change sent a message that Kennedy was resisting a top-level association with Democrats, no matter how unconventional and progressive they were.
Strategists in both political camps concede that his last name — the closest thing to U.S. political royalty among Democrats for decades — could throw voters off, though some Republicans think he has a chance to effectively rebrand himself. For one, the era in which his family was a dominating force is long gone, and his association with conspiracy theories and unorthodox beliefs is more acceptable now.
“Camelot was  years ago. Of course there are voters who may pull the lever on such a simple matter. But I really don’t think that’s going to be the issue,” Seitchik said. “If Kennedy’s going to have an impact in this race, it’s not going to be because of his last name. It’s going to be because of his policy positions.”
The 69-year-old environmental lawyer has entertained several right-wing ideas throughout his campaign, especially around vaccines. He’s made media appearances on alternative programs sowing doubt around their effectiveness against COVID-19 and has been unveiled as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a forum for Republicans to tout their closest held ideology and visions.
As Republican candidates in the presidential primary look to craft their messaging, some now publicly and privately predict that Kennedy’s anti-vax posture could be a secret weapon with independent voters who don’t always align with mainstream narratives around the pandemic.
In the latest sign that the GOP is watching, candidates have started referencing him on the trail; some have outright criticized him, while others have acknowledged he’s a true dark horse, creating more intrigue around his campaign.
Ron DeSantis, who gained prominence as governor of Florida by denouncing lockdowns and downplaying masks and vaccines during the pandemic, said Kennedy would potentially cripple Trump’s chances of winning in the fall.
“You have another wrinkle now with RFK Jr. as a third party,” DeSantis said at a stop in New Hampshire, where Trump and other aspirants are fiercely competing. “RFK Jr. will be a vessel for anti-lockdown and anti-Fauci voters if Trump is the nominee,” building the case for his primary bid against the former president and current front-runner.
“He would hurt Trump,” DeSantis predicted.
Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP strategist based in Michigan, recently chatted with Kennedy while taping a media segment. He said that his nontraditional message is likely to resonate with voters who have lamented the leftward drift among Democrats.
“RFK’s message is very anti-corporate, anti-pharmaceuticals, anti-corporate media, so it’s still pretty consistent with the Kennedy brand and being the voice of the little guy,” Roe told The Hill. “It just so happens that right now the little guy is founding their home in the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party.”
New polling bolsters that argument. When Kennedy was part of the Democratic primary, he was seen by Republicans as a nonfactor. They discounted him winning enough support to challenge Biden and envisioned him dropping out at some point before the general election.
But the independent status change has made some Republicans anxious that he could be stepping on their terrain and may theoretically pull from otherwise gettable voters.
Trump allies and the Republican National Committee have sent warnings about Kennedy as a new independent, trying to knock him down and build an early narrative that he’s as liberal and left-wing as his namesake suggests.
But Roe said that running as an independent gives Kennedy more longevity in the race.
“I don’t die at the end of the Democratic nominating process. I can carve out a more independent posture; I can appeal to those people on the right without betraying my roots,” Roe said, speculating about how Kennedy could be thinking about his strategy.
Polling indicates that he’s giving Republican and pro-Trump figures reasons to worry. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released this week showed that Kennedy diminishes what would otherwise be a slight lead for Trump over Biden in November.
According to the survey, Kennedy earned 13 percent of support, “drawing voters who by 2-1 said they would otherwise support the probable Republican nominee.” Another poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist released last week also shows that he takes more votes away from Trump than Biden, providing an additional point of clarity for dazed operatives unsure about whose voting bloc he may pull from.
Kennedy earns 29 percent support among registered voters surveyed, compared to Trump’s 34 percent and Biden’s 33 percent, the poll indicates. “In a three-way contest with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. running as an independent, Biden opens up a 7-point lead over Trump. 44 percent of registered voters support Biden. 37 percent back Trump, and 16 percent are for Kennedy,” the survey reads.
Democrats eyeing the newly released numbers delighted that, according to the analysis, “Biden’s support dips 5 percentage points among Democrats while Trump loses 10 points among Republicans.”
One campaign strategist who worked for a Democratic candidate during the 2020 election texted enthusiastically about the findings. “Pulling far more from Trump!” the Democratic source said, expressing optimism that others in the party are searching for as Biden continues to drop in overall approval.
Meanwhile, Kennedy has gone after establishment forces such as the Democratic National Committee, which changed the primary calendar this cycle, and lobbied for New Hampshire to preserve its first-in-the-nation status.
“He seems like a fellow traveler on the liberty side of things,” said Roe, arguing that it’s there where he’s hoping to peel off independent voters and show enough traction to get on other state ballots.
“I think his shtick will be to attack both parties,” Roe said, adding that Kennedy also will likely have to level with voters at some point. “Hey guys, I’m not going to be the prototype of what you want. But I’m less of what you hate and more of what you like. And maybe the water’s warm just this one time.”
For Trump-aligned Republicans in particular, Roe said they should be concerned about Kennedy for a more basic reason: In a cycle rife with partisan attacks, where Democrats are eager to take down Trump as their biggest perceived threat, Kennedy offers a softer approach.
“He’s not sneering at them,” he said.