WASHINGTON — Midway through the Super Bowl on Sunday night, a familiar jingle rang out, at least for viewers of a certain age. An ad for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., borrowed his uncle John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 “Kennedy” commercial, used this time to promote the younger Kennedy’s independent presidential campaign.
Within minutes, Kennedy had posted a video of the ad on the social media site X. That was followed a few hours later by an apology from Kennedy to angry family members, in which he explained the ad was placed without his input or knowledge by an outside political action committee supporting his campaign.
Still, he did not delete the ad from his page, and it remained pinned to the top of his profile on the platform, above his contrite statement.
The $7 million ad is the latest example of how Kennedy’s longshot presidential campaign is being buoyed by American Values 2024, an unaffiliated, pro-Kennedy outside group able to raise unlimited funds from big-money donors. The group’s expenditure of millions of dollars to support Kennedy’s efforts to get on the November ballot has attracted the attention of his opponents, who have appealed to the Federal Election Commission.
Their deep involvement — though ostensibly at arm’s length — is part of a broader trend this election cycle that potentially signals changing norms around how much outside PACs can pick up the mantle for candidates with more limited campaign funds.
“If the FEC ends up blessing these actions or turning the other cheek toward these actions, then you can expect to see a lot more in the future,” said Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based Republican strategist.
To be sure, outside groups are allowed to pay for national ads boosting their candidate; but the law prohibits the outside groups from coordinating with the candidate or campaign on it. It’s an arrangement with obvious benefits, including tapping into deep pocketed donors and, as evidenced by Kennedy’s situation, plausible deniability when it comes to the results.
“PACs are like the rich, crazy uncles at Thanksgiving. You can’t control what they say, you just have to shrug and offer an eye roll … because you really like the big gifts that they give you,” Marson said.
But steps taken by American Values 2024 to help him get on the ballot could fall into a legally questionable area, some experts say, raising questions about where the spending boundaries are for these groups — and where they should be.
Kennedy originally challenged Biden for the Democratic nomination, but last fall dropped out of the primary to pursue a bid as an independent candidate. Without an established political party behind him, Kennedy has to qualify for the ballot in each state, a process that ranges from a small fee in some states to collecting more than 100,000 valid signatures in others.
The process is not impossible, but typically requires millions of dollars in legal and process costs. Kennedy’s campaign is attempting a grassroots, volunteer-based strategy to get on ballots. But the outside PAC, cofounded by a longtime associate of Kennedy’s, has also mapped out a multimillion dollar effort to qualify for the ballot, targeting 12 states with the highest barriers to ballot access.
On Friday, the Democratic National Committee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission arguing that the PAC’s work to get Kennedy on state ballots amounts to an in-kind contribution that runs afoul of federal campaign finance law. The DNC requested that the FEC investigate.
Kennedy’s campaign manager Amaryllis Fox Kennedy said in a statement to the Globe the complaint “is a nonissue being raised by a partisan political entity that seems to be increasingly concerned with its own candidate and viability.” A cofounder for American Values 2024 denied any improper coordination, saying they’ve been consistently working with lawyers to monitor their efforts.
Whether the FEC will investigate remains unclear. The agency said it does not comment on complaints, and investigations can take months to resolve.
The Kennedy camp is not the only one testing the boundaries of such rules, even this election cycle. Former Republican candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis outsourced much of his campaign apparatus to a super PAC — a plan that ended up being a source of frequent contention, mixed messaging and ultimately money and organization woes that contributed to his failure as a candidate.
Throughout DeSantis’s campaign, accusations of being too cozy with what were supposed to be unaffiliated groups piled up, including one complaint from the Campaign Legal Center, an independent campaign finance watchdog, which accused DeSantis of coordinating too closely with Never Back Down Inc., the primary super PAC backing him for most of the campaign. In its complaint, the watchdog noted the extensive resources the super PAC put toward covering expenses for events at which DeSantis appeared.
The campaigns and their supporters may end up providing a precedent for future elections even if they’re unsuccessful electorally, as each election cycle requires more and more massive amounts of money for candidates to effectively function. That could still be true even if the FEC — which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — doesn’t explicitly bless the behavior, but simply does not act. Such a stance, observers say, could send a signal to campaigns and political entities.
“I think there’s no question that that will be open season for [outside groups],” said Ann Ravel, former Democratic chair of the FEC. “If they see that that’s a continuation of how the FEC’s going to be making decisions — or their failure to make decisions — that makes it easier for them to recognize that they can just do what they want.”
Kennedy’s campaign has been controversial from its outset. The son of Robert F. Kennedy has for years been a leading skeptic of vaccines who has often amplified medical misinformation or false claims. During the pandemic, he became a leading voice of COVID skepticism. His family has repeatedly criticized his candidacy and he has stocked his campaign with other vaccine and COVID doubters.
Also famous as an environmental lawyer, Kennedy’s campaign has been a blend of leftist and right-leaning ideas, usually packaged in a conspiracy-laced, populist view of the world. He has pulled in supporters from both sides of the political aisle, as well as more independent-minded voters.
Kennedy’s campaign and American Values 2024 have argued that legal efforts against them are a sign that the establishment parties feel threatened by them.
“The DNC is terrified of RFK Jr. and they are desperate, and rather than try to win over the electorate with good policies and candidates that win popular approval, they’re looking to subvert the system using every dirty trick that they can,” said Mark Gorton, an investor and one of the co-founders of American Values 2024. “Their goal is to try to bleed the campaign and AV24 of resources.”
On a call with reporters on Friday, a DNC official demurred on whether it had concerns Kennedy’s campaign could peel off voters in key swing states this election cycle. But this also marks the first time they have ever filed such a complaint against an outside group.
“This is an effort to subvert our election laws and prop up a stalking horse in RFK Jr.,” said Lis Smith, a DNC adviser. “We have no choice but to file a complaint.”