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Robert F. Kennedy Michigan
The Biden campaign and the DNC haven’t taken the threat that Kennedy poses lightly. Jose Juarez/AP

Democrats Don’t Agree on How Much Attention to Pay RFK Jr.

“I don’t know if Democrats should be talking about RFK nonstop,” said one Michigan Democratic operative.

Democrats can’t agree on how much time, money or brain space to spend on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Since RFK Jr. made the ballot in Michigan last week, operatives in the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee have had different views than those in the state party on when and how to attack the third-party candidate who could — at the very least — play a spoiler role in the battleground state Joe Biden barely won in 2020.

The Biden campaign and the DNC haven’t taken the threat Kennedy poses lightly. Kennedy is polling around 9% in Michigan, well behind former President Donald Trump and Biden, but more than enough that his name on the ballot could easily siphon votes — and Democrats believe those votes will come from Biden. The DNC in March, more than a month before Kennedy qualified to be on Michigan’s ballot, put together a team to push back on third-party and independent candidates. They’re also pouring money into attacking Kennedy as he makes campaign stops, running ads and bringing in Biden supporters to Kennedy appearances.

Matt Corridoni, the DNC spokesperson messaging on third-party campaigns, told NOTUS that the DNC would highlight how Kennedy’s campaign would ultimately help Trump and highlight the connections between Trump and Kennedy. For instance, Timothy Mellon is the largest donor to both Trump and Kennedy.

“RFK Jr. was recruited to run by Trump allies like Steve Bannon, his candidacy is being propped up by Trump’s largest donor, and his own campaign staffer said the campaign’s top goal is stopping President Biden,” said Corridoni. “There will be a clear choice facing voters this November, and the more they learn about RFK Jr., the more they will recognize that a vote for him is a vote for Donald Trump.”

A Biden campaign spokesperson told NOTUS that the president is the “only candidate putting in the work and resources necessary to win in communities across the entire state of Michigan.”

Meanwhile, the state party has largely ignored Kennedy. Kevin Tolbert, a district chair in the Michigan Democratic Party, said his focus has been on the congressional district convention coming up in a few weeks to pick delegates for the Democratic National Convention in August. Kennedy was on his radar, he said, but he thinks that more time should be devoted to highlighting Biden’s legislative victories because swing voters are “smart” and “understand the stakes” of this year’s election.

“[If] I’m concerned about bad weather, I bring a coat or umbrella to prepare for it, and then [the weather] doesn’t affect me,” he said of the need for Democrats to educate voters about Kennedy’s platform. “But I don’t see a world where there’s this huge waste of funds on Kennedy messaging.”

“I, honestly, have not followed his campaign closely enough. I pretty much ignore it,” said Gary Stark, another district chair for the Michigan Democratic Party. “The fact that Biden got a really strong endorsement from the Kennedy family helps a lot. How much? I don’t know. There’s not much I can tell you about RFK in Michigan other than that he seems to be on the ballot, and most Democrats wish he weren’t.”

Kennedy is best known for his anti-vaccine stance and fringe ideas, and there is some evidence that he could also appeal to Republican voters dissatisfied with Trump. But his well-known last name could sway Democratic voters.

Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, didn’t even mention RFK Jr. by name when NOTUS asked about him and instead focused on Biden.

“No one has the infrastructure we’ve built on the ground in Michigan,” she said. “With dozens of field offices and hundreds of volunteers across the state, and a strong record of job creation and lower health care costs thanks to this administration, we’re confident we’ll keep them in the White House and defeat Trump once again in November.”

One Democratic state operative is worried that the party is focusing too much on Kennedy (the operative called Kennedy a “clown”). They opined that Democratic messaging should be “hopeful” and “uplifting” and ultimately focus on Biden.

“I don’t know if Democrats should be talking about RFK nonstop,” they said.

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.