CONCORD, N.H. — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. found several ways to flatter New Hampshire and its voters Thursday, when he addressed the state Senate and made the case for his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kennedy, who hails from one of the nation’s most influential political families, recounted how he and his relatives spent time hiking and camping in the Granite State’s mountains. And he denounced the Democratic National Committee’s effort to strip the state of its first-in-the-nation primary.
“It is more than a tradition: New Hampshire plays a critical role in vetting candidates for the rest of the country,” he said, drawing applause from the Senate.
Kennedy lauded what he called “real democracy,” an idealized vision of retail politics in a state where voters expect candidates to visit hair salons, barber shops, diners, and gas stations to field face-to-face follow-up questions that major media outlets would never ask.
“They are vetting our candidates the same way they would vet a city council candidate or local mayor,” he said.
Kennedy clearly knew his audience, according to Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester, who said the candidate performed well and was “very much worth listening to.”
“His focus on the primary, I thought, was very significant, very important,” D’Allesandro said. “He knew why he was here. To me, that meant a lot because he recognizes the importance of the New Hampshire primary and giving everybody an opportunity.”
Kennedy is the fourth 2024 presidential candidate to speak in the chamber at the invitation of Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Republican, who said the state punches above its weight in terms of political energy. The senators heard from author Marianne Williamson, a Democrat, in March; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican, in April; and businessman Perry Johnson, a Republican, in May.
While his family has a household name, Kennedy himself is lesser-known as an individual, and his long-running crusade against COVID-19 vaccines has been denounced by medical professionals and even fellow Kennedys.
“That anti-vax situation will play out,” D’Allesandro said, “but generally speaking, sure, he’s got a chance.”
Social media giants have cracked down on Kennedy’s past comments about vaccines. YouTube removed a video of a political speech he gave in New Hampshire in early March, citing the platform’s COVID-19 medical misinformation policy. But his remarks on Thursday appear to have sidestepped the tripwires of online content moderation. His remarks were livestreamed on YouTube and remained publicly available several hours later. He didn’t speak about vaccines, though he did criticize COVID-19 lockdowns and pharmaceutical companies.
In addition to commending New Hampshire for its primary, Kennedy also praised the state’s independent spirit. More than four in 10 registered voters aren’t affiliated with a party. That group is chock-full of critical thinkers, he said.
“They’re independent thinkers, and they’re able to step outside of that fixed, paralyzing iceberg of partisanship that has our country at each other’s throats,” he said. “They’re able to look at candidates without the ideology blocking their vision and really judge the candidates on what they say and be open to new ideas.”
Speaking with reporters after his remarks, Kennedy said he’s already consolidating support among independents and plans to keep doing so by speaking out against surveillance and warfare, and speaking up for the middle class and building a strong American economy.
He also acknowledged that he’s scheduled to speak at the Porcupine Freedom Festival (commonly called PorcFest) later this month. It’s an annual event organized by the Free State Project, a movement that has sought to transform New Hampshire into a libertarian utopia — and frustrated many progressives in the process.
“I welcome support from the libertarians,” he said. “I have tremendous support in that cohort.”
Kennedy’s campaign spokesperson, Stefanie Spear, said he was invited to speak at PorcFest and expects to find a range of viewpoints at the event, including many that Kennedy doesn’t share.
“On the way to winning the general election, the campaign aims to reclaim values that the Democratic Party has abandoned, and voters who have abandoned the Party,” Spear said. “There will undoubtedly be such people — disaffected Democrats — at the event.”
And there’s also a possibility that Kennedy’s uphill campaign against President Biden might pick up disaffected Democrats from the party’s progressive wing, too.
Representative Jonah Wheeler, a 20-year-old progressive Democrat from Peterborough, said he’s looking for an alternative to Biden’s “milquetoast liberal attitude.” He listened to Kennedy’s remarks from the Senate gallery and said he was impressed.
“He’s not as crazy or kooky as it seems like people are trying to make him out to be,” Wheeler said, noting Kennedy’s record of work as an environmental lawyer.
“We’re in a really serious moment when it comes to war and the power that corporations have over our country, and I don’t think that there is any real candidate other than Mr. Kennedy who is articulately describing that situation,” he said. “I think Marianne Williamson is doing a great job, and she should continue to run, but for me, Mr. Kennedy has the articulate and coherent vision for the future, while also telling us what’s actually happening.”