PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Republicans attacked Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Monday as the longtime environmental lawyer and anti-vaccine activist launched an independent bid for the White House, reflecting growing concerns on the right that the former Democrat now threatens to take votes from former President Donald Trump in 2024.
The Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign both took aim at Kennedy’s liberal background while national Democrats stayed silent as Kennedy insisted in a speech in Philadelphia that he was leaving both political parties behind.
“Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values,” said Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung in a statement. He labeled Kennedy’s campaign “nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy looking to cash in on his family’s name.”
The fiery response exposes the unknowns that lie in Kennedy’s long-anticipated decision to run as an independent. The move is likely to impact the 2024 race, which appears to be heading toward a rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden, but it’s still unclear exactly how.
Kennedy, a member of one of the most famous families in Democratic politics, was running a long-shot primary bid and holds better favorability ratings among Republicans than Democrats. Even Trump just two weeks ago said of Kennedy, “I like him a lot. I’ve known him for a long time.”
Allies of both Biden and Trump have at times questioned whether Kennedy would be a spoiler against their candidate.
“The truth is, they’re both right,” Kennedy said onstage Monday to roaring applause. “My intention is to spoil it for both of them.”
Speaking Monday from Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, where America’s founding documents were adopted, Kennedy made it clear he didn’t want to be affiliated with either party. He referenced a “rising tide of discontent” in the country. He said he wants to make a “new declaration of independence” — from corporations, the media and the two major political parties.
Hundreds of supporters who gathered for Kennedy’s remarks, holding signs that read “Declare your independence” and at times chanting “RFK, all the way!” were upbeat about his decision. An eclectic mix of disillusioned Democrats, Trump voters looking for a change, and political outsiders who say their ideas don’t square with any one party, they insisted that Kennedy could unify them all.
“He’s going to win,” said Peter Pantazis, a 40-year-old business owner from Lewes, Delaware. “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 years I’ve been noticing the Republican Party’s been going a way I didn’t like,” said Brent Snyder, a disabled veteran from south Philadelphia. “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.”
Joy, hope and the faint smell of marijuana hovered above the crowd as Kennedy spoke of John Adams’ unwavering support for his country and George Washington’s prescient warning that partisan politics would result in corruption.
Yet Kennedy’s upstart campaign has a long way to go to compete with the funding, support and experience that the Trump and Biden campaigns enjoy. His announcement Monday was delayed briefly when he arrived onstage only to find his speech was loaded upside-down in the teleprompter.
Monday’s announcement comes less than a week after the progressive activist Cornel West abandoned his Green Party bid in favor of an independent White House run. Meanwhile, the centrist group No Labels is actively securing ballot access for a yet-to-be-named candidate.
Aware of the risk that Kennedy could pull votes away from Republicans, Trump allies have begun circulating opposition research against Kennedy designed to damage his standing among would-be conservative supporters.
The Republican National Committee published a fact sheet before Kennedy’s speech titled “Radical DEMOCRAT RFK Jr.” that lists times he supported liberal politicians or ideas. The document also listed times he supported conspiracy theories about COVID-19 or “stolen-election claims” related to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections that Democrats lost to President George W. Bush. Trump continues to promote the disproved theory that his loss to Biden was the result of a stolen election.
Biden’s allies so far have dismissed Kennedy’s primary campaign as unserious. Asked for comment ahead of the announcement, a Democratic National Committee spokesman responded with an eye roll emoji. The DNC declined to comment Monday.
Four of Kennedy’s eight surviving siblings put out a joint statement denouncing his candidacy and saying 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,” it read. “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment.”
Tony Lyons, co-founder and co-chairman of American Values 2024, the super PAC supporting Kennedy, dismissed those 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,” Lyons said. “Families are allowed to disagree.”
While Kennedy has long identified as a Democrat and frequently invokes his late father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and his uncle President John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail, he has built close relationships with far-right figures in recent years. He appeared on a channel run by the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and headlined a stop on the ReAwaken America Tour, the Christian nationalist road show put together by Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Polls show far more Republicans than Democrats have a favorable opinion of Kennedy. He also has gained support from some far-right conservatives for his fringe views, including his vocal distrust of COVID-19 vaccines, which studies have shown are safe and effective against severe disease and death.
Kennedy’s anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, currently has a lawsuit pending against a number of news organizations, among them The Associated Press, accusing them of violating antitrust laws by taking action to identify misinformation, including about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines. Kennedy took leave from the group when he announced his run for president but is listed as one of its attorneys in the lawsuit.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Michelle Smith, and Will Weissert contributed to this report.
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