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Election 2024 Kennedy
Democrats attack Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for having donors who support Donald Trump, while Trump attacks Kennedy for being a “radical, left person.” Eric Gay/AP

Third-Party Operatives Hate What RFK Jr. Is Doing With His Independent Run

The people who have tried to give voters a third option have a lot to say about RFK Jr. None of it’s good.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is either a dangerous right-wing plant or a dangerous left-wing plant, depending on who is talking on any given day.

Republicans and Democrats are siphoning off some of the money they’ve set aside to attack each other to try and destroy the insurgent Kennedy candidacy, which each says is a threat to their respective cause.

Veterans of presidential politics’ smallest and most quixotic club — the third-party campaign staffer — have never seen anything quite like it. The RFK Jr. campaign lives rent-free in the minds of both major political parties in a way few have ever done. But, perhaps counterintuitively, some third-party vets support the efforts to stomp out the Kennedy embers before they catch real fire.

Veterans of the Green Party and Libertarian Party said Kennedy’s rise feels like that of Ross Perot’s, who ran twice, once as an independent and once as a third-party candidate, in the 1990s. But the mainstream party attention Kennedy is getting — from both Republicans and Democrats — is different, said Russ Verney, who was a top consultant to Perot’s 1992 independent bid and the manager of his 1996 run.

“The attacks are usually not so much on the individual,” he told NOTUS recently, of the usual approach to third parties. “As though they were not serious national figures, you know, that they’re just beyond the pale.”

As he recalls it, the major parties were careful with Perot’s supporters, saying they felt their pain or had at least a couple of points of light they might be interested in. That meant treating Perot with at least some respect. This time, the major parties are doing no such thing.

“He is a radical, left person,” Donald Trump said in a video last week in which he attacked Kennedy’s family as “lunatics” and his VP choice as a grifter. “Republicans, get it out of your mind you’re going to vote for this guy because he’s conservative, because he’s not.”

Democrats have also called Kennedy a phony, pointing to his donors who support Trump. The DNC has trailed RFK campaign events with billboards screaming “SPOILER FOR TRUMP” and has launched a concerted effort to undermine his campaign.

Verney is not a fan of the major parties for the most part. But he agrees that Kennedy is as bad as they say he is.

“He’s not established himself as somebody that’s worthy of being in consideration, except for maybe he will have money based on his vice presidential candidate,” he said. “It appears the only issue he has to run on is, ‘Let’s make polio great again.’”

Kennedy is not yet on enough state ballots to become president. In theory, he might win enough support in a swing state to throw the election to Joe Biden or Trump. Third-party veterans are used to the “spoiler” attack, though they usually don’t get it from both sides.

“I recall Trump attacking Jill a couple times, but I didn’t see any sign of the Republican Party to suppress our vote,” said Ben Manski, a longtime Green Party operative who managed Jill Stein’s campaign in 2012. He had fully begun his current career as an academic by the time of the 2016 race but remained an active Green — and remembered Democrats as the ones actively trying to stop Stein that year.

Manski understands the major party panic over Kennedy — it doesn’t surprise him. But he’s not thrilled with Kennedy’s style either.

“The Kennedy campaign represents a challenge to a political system that has shown a lot of weakness,” he said. “I don’t think that Kennedy himself represents an opportunity to democratize our political system. I think a lot of the things he talks about are, well, I won’t go there but I will say I’m no supporter of Kennedy’s, let’s put it that way.”

That said, he wouldn’t mind if major party operatives would stop standing in the way of true national movements demanding something different: “It would be nice if the people in the political establishment put the same kind of energy into political reform as they do trying to prevent candidates getting on the ballot from outside the two parties,” Manski said.

Those who repeatedly submit themselves to the most tortuous uphill electoral climbs take their outsider politics role very seriously. They just don’t think Kennedy does, despite the unprecedented attention his run draws from the political mainstream.

“Definitely he likes attention, any attacks from or any interaction with the major parties,” said John Vaught LaBeaume, a veteran of Libertarian Party politics including as a top operative for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. “Much more than we did. It wasn’t our goal. I’m not sure if it’s RFK’s, but it seems important to him.”

LaBeaume faced Democratic attacks when he was with Johnson as a communications adviser in ’16 and Republican attacks when he managed the Libertarian campaign of Robert Sarvis in a Virginia gubernatorial race three years earlier. Above all, one of his main goals was to keep his candidates credible.

“RFK, he’s a weirdo,” he said. “When I worked with that Sarvis campaign, we did everything we could to make him sound rational. So it was really hard to use that ‘crazy’ line. RFK, of course, he doesn’t care. He says anything.”

The Kennedy moment is a big one for independent politics. No one really knows who supports him, and that makes him especially dangerous. But in the end, LaBeaume worries Kennedy is not helping independent politics close that all-important credibility.

“Whenever you have viable options that aren’t options, like RFK,” he said, “it just reinforces the idea that you can’t have proper options. I believe in working hard to make a third choice viable. A choice for voters to feel better if they don’t like the other two candidates. If you’re just out there acting out because it feels good and sort of acting, you know, outré, it doesn’t help the cause.”

Kennedy’s campaign declined a request for comment.

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS.