In March 1968, with the Democratic presidential primary already in full swing, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) entered the race after Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) nearly defeated incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Kennedy’s announcement led Johnson to make an announcement of his own. On March 31 of that year, the president shocked the nation with the news that he was withdrawing from the race—the first time an incumbent had withdrawn from a reelection campaign since Calvin Coolidge had done so in the 1928 race.
In 1979, Robert Kennedy’s brother, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), took on another Democratic incumbent, President Jimmy Carter. That battle would last through the 1980 primary season, all the way to the national convention where Carter finally prevailed—only to be vanquished by Ronald Reagan in the general election.
Now Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., will become the latest member of his storied clan to challenge a Democratic incumbent. RFK, Jr., announced his plans to run in early April and made it official in Boston on Wednesday.
For Democrats, the fear that a dissident candidate would squander the most important asset of a political party in an election, incumbency, is just one reason to approach RFK, Jr.’s bid with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nevertheless, the fact of Kennedy’s challenge offers a window into the way the modern Democratic Party views those who cling to policy positions that used to be standard among Democrats and speaks to the ways the party has changed in recent decades.
Kennedy’s confrontational approach to the pharmaceutical industry used to be part of the marketing pitch of Democratic candidates and presidents, as Barack Obama attacked the sector in 2016 as his second term neared completion. But RFK, Jr. is the only candidate today who can brag of his lifetime record of being a thorn in the side of that industry.
There are many more factors that come into play for a Kennedy presidential run, however, each one a double edged sword.
Pro: At 69, Kennedy once would have been viewed as well past his prime for a first-time candidate. But we are in a different political era today and 69 seems relatively young compared to the top leadership of both parties. Moreover, less than eight years ago, a 70 year-old real estate mogul named Donald Trump won the office as an even bigger political novice. Between Trump and current President Joe Biden, RFK, Jr. seems wet behind the ears, yet seasoned enough by his family ties, legal career, and public advocacy to withstand the world of politics.
Con: It isn’t just RFK, Jr.’s personal mileage that will be debated, but that of his family, an association he cannot escape. When his uncle John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 he was considered a younger, forward thinking, and stylish alternative to the boring candidates who faced off against him. He socialized with the Rat Pack, had a glamorous wife, and lively young children who made him seem virile and engaged in the world in a way no rival could equal. But that was more than 60 years ago. RFK, Jr. is now the fourth man in his family to seek the White House and is older than any of the others who went before him.
Pro: Throughout more than 40 years as a lawyer, including work as a prosecutor and an environmental and health advocate, Kennedy has been able to carve out a niche for himself that gives him an identity beyond politics.
Con: RFK, Jr.’s detractors may choose to bash him for having modest accomplishments given his privileged upbringing and for the skeletons in his closet that have kept him out of politics while siblings, cousins and nephews have been elected already.
Pro: There is no doubt the Kennedy name is an asset. Kennedys have been elected to office since 1884 when family patriarch Patrick Joseph Kennedy, a second-generation Irish immigrant, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Others have served in appointed positions such as his cousin Caroline Kennedy who is U.S. Ambassador to Austria. Without the name RFK, Jr. would be an also-ran—having little resonance with the public and no ability to open the doors of potential supporters and the wallets of donors.
Con: While it is perhaps the oldest continuous American political dynasty, being a Kennedy no longer carries the same cache it once did. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign was an amazing challenge from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing to an unpopular party incumbent, however his popularity was largely limited to the northern and western urban corridors while Carter was able to dominate in strategically important states in the South, Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Moreover, RFK, Jr.’s nephew Joe Kennedy III sought the U.S. Senate seat for Massachusetts in 2020. It would have made him the fourth Kennedy in the upper chamber, joining JFK, RFK, Sr., and Ted Kennedy. The only problem was that Ed Markey, a progressive Democrat, was not retiring and easily defeated him in the primary by an 11 percentage point margin. In 2002 RFK, Jr.’s oldest sister Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ran for governor in Maryland and was defeated in a dramatic upset.
An added factor that will doubtless be brought up is the “Kennedy Curse,” given that his uncle and father were both assassinated in shocking and very suspicious circumstances and his cousin JFK, Jr. died in a well-publicized plane crash. Also, while he may be able to use the Kennedy name RFK, Jr. does not have the family behind him. His younger sister Kerry was one of the first to come out and state publicly that she is not supporting his candidacy. Without their support, the advantage of being a Kennedy almost disappears.
Pro: Among Democrats who are staunch supporters of climate change regulation, conservation, and environmental advocacy RFK, Jr. remains rock solid. He also is an icon among critics of the pharmaceutical industry, recently thanks to his forceful opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine rollouts and mandates.
Con: The Kennedy name brings with it the prestige and grace of “Camelot,” the idealized media friendly image of JFK’s time in the White House with First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and their children. For other Americans taking a more jaded look at that past, it also evokes the affairs, abuses, corruption, and scandal that was hidden from the public during his presidency. Similar sagas involving his father Joe Kennedy, Sr. (his Gloria Swanson affair and fascist sympathies), Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick, waitress sandwich), and JFK, Jr. have become the subject of numerous books, articles, films, and legends.
While much of his professional and public life has been in public advocacy, RFK, Jr. also has a sordid history, including heroin use from the early 1980s and two divorces before marrying his current wife actress Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”). His second wife Mary Richardson committed suicide in 2012 in the wake of their bitter divorce, with some naturally pointing fingers at him for putting her through psychological torment. Kennedy’s philandering ways are hardly in dispute. In 2013, the New York Post acquired a diary discovered by Richardson in which he logged 37 different sexual encounters or relationships with women for the year 2001 alone. With such a track record, a hostile press may succeed in painting RFK, Jr. as another Donald Trump but with progressive leanings, which would never fly in a Democratic primary.
Pro: One advantage Kennedy has right now is that so much the media’s attention is focused on Donald Trump’s feud with Ron DeSantis and legal troubles that they’re able to devote a only small portion of their scorn towards him. Kennedy also is dealing with only two current Democratic competitors, the mercurial Marianne Williamson and Biden. While polling data is sparse, in late March when facing a full battery of potential challengers like Pete Buttigieg and Michelle Obama, Biden only won among 34 percent of primary voters in New Hampshire, and 36 percent nationally. These are terrible numbers for an incumbent. Unlike Biden, RFK, Jr. has at least some ability to attract independents and Republican crossovers.
Con: The last two elections should have dispelled the notion that the Democratic Party is about democracy, competition, and fairness—even between the various streams of the Left. In 2016 Hillary Clinton’s allies in the party put their thumbs on the scale in order to clear the decks of any viable alternative. This was confirmed by Donna Brazile, former two-time acting chair of the Democratic National Committee, in a 2017 confession she wrote for Politico in which she admitted that the DNC and the Clinton campaign had linked arms all the way back to 2015.
In August 2017, a federal court hearing the class action lawsuit filed by Floridian supporters of Clinton rival Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) against the DNC upheld the finding that the committee and its chairwoman at the time, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), had tipped the scales in Clinton’s favor, but dismissed the suit on the grounds that the party was within its rights to do so. It is very likely that even had there been no foul play by party insiders, Sanders would have lost the primary given Clinton’s institutional support from convention superdelegates who are not obligated to vote at the convention in accordance with how their state primary voters voted.
Likewise, in 2020 as Joe Biden’s campaign was floundering following lackluster performances in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, most of his opponents dropped out in order to give him a clear lane in running against Sanders. The person who may have done the most to decide the 2020 Democratic Primary, and perhaps the election itself, was Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) who threw his support and that of most of the Congressional Black Caucus behind Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary. The result was a resounding victory in which Biden seized the momentum and catapulted back to the favored candidate position.
If Democratic insiders were willing to move so many mountains to secure the nomination for Biden three years ago against a sitting senator and necessary ally like Sanders, why would they not do so against RFK, Jr. who has even less institutional support?
Much can happen between now and the beginning of the 2024 primaries that could add uncertainty into the race. For example, Biden’s popularity problem is further damaged by Vice President Kamala Harris, whose own popularity is worse than his. Another factor is Biden’s age and ongoing controversy surrounding evidence of his declining mental cognition. In August, a poll showed 59 percent of voters were “concerned” or “very concerned” about Biden’s mental health and a recent Associated Press poll showed his overall approval at only 38 percent. Biden has stated that he plans to run again, however official announcements and activities have been muted leading to awkward exchanges on the topic with the likes of Al Roker.
So for now, Americans wait and many wonder if this Kennedy will have what it takes to resurrect Camelot for the Democrats.