Where RFK Jr. Goes From Here

Wasn’t Robert F. Kennedy Jr. supposed to have flamed out by now? At a rally yesterday in Oakland, California, Kennedy—a lifelong Democrat turned independent—unveiled his 2024 running mate, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan. Kennedy selected Shanahan from a motley crew of reported vice-presidential contenders: Aaron Rodgers, Jesse Ventura, Mike Rowe, Tulsi Gabbard, and the rapper Killer Mike, to name a few.

Shanahan is by no means a household name. Yet she could bolster Kennedy’s outsider ticket in three pivotal ways. She’s just 38 years old and may help him appeal to younger voters. Several states require candidates to file a two-person ticket as a ballot-eligibility requirement, so her sheer addition could help move those efforts forward. And, of course, she has money: Her charitable donations suggest she is worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. “The purpose of wealth is to help those in need,” Shanahan told the crowd yesterday. “And I want to bring that back to politics.”

Kennedy’s upstart We the People party still has a slim chance of winning the White House. As of now, he’s on the ballot only in the state of Utah. Yet his movement’s potential to “spoil” the election remains very real. Kennedy knows this. In fact, he owns it. But he rejects the premise that he’s more likely to pull voters away from one particular candidate. Rather, he sees himself as a bipartisan menace. “Our campaign is a spoiler,” he told the crowd, before rattling off a list of things he intends to spoil (the electoral hopes of Donald Trump and Joe Biden chief among them). He also made it clear that his aim is bigger and broader than one election. “Our independent run for the presidency is finally going to bring down the Democratic and Republican duopoly,” Kennedy promised.

Since entering the race last April, Kennedy has mostly registered between 10 and 20 percent in the polls. A Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll of swing states published this week illustrated his potential impact: His presence added one point to Trump’s current lead over Biden. “It’s great for MAGA,” Trump posted on Truth Social this morning. “He is Crooked Joe Biden’s political opponent, not mine. I love that he is running!”

His campaign may continue to feel like a joke to some, but its effect in November could be real. Kennedy doesn’t need to win a single state to tip the election—he just needs to siphon enough votes in the right places. In 2016, pollsters, members of the media, political operatives, and the Hillary Clinton campaign appeared to underestimate the number of Americans who would support a third party—or those who were willing to hold their nose and vote for Trump. That could be happening all over again with Kennedy.

The livestreamed event had a quirky, almost surreal air to it. Kennedy’s signature crunchy-hippie-Boomer energy permeated the proceedings. His remarks ping-ponged between patriotism, nostalgia, and a rallying cry to burn it all down. At one point, the musician Tim Hockenberry led the crowd in a warbly version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Much of the afternoon was peppered with dramatic videos featuring sweeping music fit for a Michael Bay movie. (In one of the clips, Kennedy extolled the virtues of organic farming and lamented children eating Twinkies.) After revealing Shanahan to be his VP, Kennedy waxed for several more minutes, prompting confusion as to when or if she would even appear at the lectern. He characterized his new partner as a kindred spirit—an avid surfer, a fellow lawyer, a natural-food enthusiast, a wealthy person who’s not afraid to stand up to corporate America. “Nearly all Americans share the same values that we do,” he said.

Eventually, Shanahan had a chance to speak for herself. “As recently as a year ago, I really didn’t think much of Bobby Kennedy, because I didn’t know much about him,” she told the crowd. “All I had was the mainstream-media narrative that was effectively telling me horrible, disparaging things.” At the suggestion of a friend, she started listening to some of his interviews and saw a person “of intelligence, of compassion, and of reason.”

Shanahan also offered a glimpse of her family story. Her mother is a Chinese immigrant who relied on food stamps, and her father struggled with mental illness and substance abuse. Shanahan herself is the mother of a daughter on the autism spectrum. Two decades ago, Kennedy helped popularize the unscientific theory that vaccines cause autism. On the campaign trail, he has occasionally attempted to distance himself from his anti-vaccine claims. Yesterday, Shanahan leaned into the subject. She spoke at length about what she believes to be the relationship between many facets of modern life and chronic disease, and gestured toward childhood inoculations as one culprit. (This remains unproven.) “Pharmaceutical medicine has its place, but no single safety study can assess the cumulative impact of one prescription on top of another prescription, and one shot on top of another shot on top of another shot throughout the course of childhood,” she said. “We just don’t do that study right now, and we ought to.”

Like Kennedy, Shanahan lives in California. She grew up in Oakland and was previously married to the Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Her current partner is a cryptocurrency maven. Shanahan’s status as a California resident will likely be a setback for their campaign. The state’s election law mandates that California electors “shall vote by ballot for a person for President and a person for Vice President of the United States, one of whom, at least, is not an inhabitant of this state.” In simpler terms, this means that the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket will be ineligible to compete for their home state’s 54 electoral votes come November, even if it is on the ballot.

Last fall, Kennedy’s pivot from Democrat to independent didn’t nudge him out of the national conversation. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Tony Lyons, who co-founded Kennedy’s super PAC, American Values, told me that the October switch has made fundraising much easier. Lyons is among the curious characters in Kennedy’s orbit. He is not a political operative by trade; he’s the president of Skyhorse Publishing, an independent press that has published some of Kennedy’s books, including the mega best seller The Real Anthony Fauci. Although Kennedy’s campaign spokesperson did not respond to my request for comment, Lyons answered my call and engaged in a freewheeling conversation as he settled into his California hotel on the eve of the VP festivities.

Lyons told me he is “absolutely convinced” that his candidate will appear on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Although that is highly unlikely, Lyons and his super-PAC colleagues have laid some of that groundwork themselves. American Values claims to have collected enough signatures for Kennedy to reach the ballot in four battleground states: Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and South Carolina. Recently, however, the group paused its ballot-access efforts and is now zeroing in on advertising, leaving the ballot-access push to the campaign and its reported 60,000 volunteers. Kennedy’s rivals say this sudden halt came after allegations of illegal coordination between the super PAC and Kennedy’s campaign.

Responding to some recent attacks more broadly, Lyons told me that the Democratic National Committee has “brought together this sort of hit squad of dirty tricksters who are going to try to find every technicality they can get to disenfranchise the American people.” He said he believes we’ve reached an inflection point in U.S. history—“you know, sort of a battle for the soul of America.” He did not seem to realize that he was parroting Biden’s 2020 campaign slogan.

As one of the nation’s preeminent conspiracy theorists, Kennedy markets himself as a champion of the First Amendment, and has made quite a living doing so. Lyons, for his part, is something closer to a free-speech absolutist. A few months ago, he published The Great Awakening: Defeating the Globalists and Launching the Next Great Renaissance, a book by Alex Jones. When I interviewed Kennedy for a profile last year, I asked him about Jones, and he all but drew a line. “There’s only so many discussions that you can have, and only so many areas where you can actually, you know, examine the evidence,” Kennedy told me. Lyons, however, was quick to defend Jones in our conversation this week. “It starts with Alex Jones, and then it comes to everybody else,” he said of free-speech censorship. “He has a right to be published by anybody who wants to publish him, and I’ve made it very clear that I want to publish Alex Jones,” he said a bit later. “I think Alex Jones has very provocative views about all kinds of things.”

As of now, Biden’s team is keeping an eye on Jill Stein, Cornel West, and the potential No Labels unity ticket, but Kennedy has most of its attention. “Our campaign isn’t taking a single vote for granted, and we are making historic investments to ensure that Americans know all that’s at stake in this election,” a Biden-campaign spokesperson told me in a statement. “The American people will face a stark choice this November between the two candidates with a path to 270 electoral votes.”

Lyons’s comment to me about a “hit squad of dirty tricksters” seemed to be a reference to the DNC’s recent hiring of the Democratic operatives Lis Smith and Matt Corridoni, who are tasked with taking on third-party candidates. In conversations (and in news coverage), anti-Kennedy talking points appear to be making the rounds now more than ever. Virtually any discussion with someone connected to the DNC, for instance, includes the observation that Kennedy’s largest super-PAC donor, Timothy Mellon, has also given money to Trump’s PAC. In a statement to me last night, Corridoni said, “We’re going to make sure voters are educated about Kennedy’s extreme policies and the MAGA donors funding his spoiler campaign. When voters learn that Kennedy is propped up by Trump’s biggest donor, attempting to throw the election, and that his own family doesn’t support him, they will be less curious about his candidacy should he even make it onto the ballot.”

Earlier this month, dozens of Kennedys showed up at the White House to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with Biden. A viral group photo of them arm in arm with Biden appeared to be a response to an American Values ad that ran during the Super Bowl and repurposed the mid-century “Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy” jingle. Kennedy himself later apologized for the ad and blamed his super PAC (while still featuring the clip on his X profile). The person who bankrolled the controversial spot? His new running mate.

The Trump campaign did not respond to my requests for comment for this story. In background conversations with the Biden campaign and the DNC this week, I was struck by their optimism. I was also surprised by what seemed to be an overestimation of “average” voter knowledge. (Though when I raised this criticism, I received a strong denial, plus examples of times the campaign acknowledged that the public is unaware of Kennedy’s positions.) Even now, many Americans are barely aware of Kennedy’s stance on Israel, or his anti-vaccine history—they simply know his last name, and are maybe vaguely aware of his ’60s-anarchy ethos. But it’s not just positions. The establishment Democrats may also be underestimating Kennedy’s relative appeal. Although he’s 70 years old, Kennedy still seems youthful, at least compared with Biden and Trump.

Biden fatigue in particular is very real right now, and will be a tangible factor in November. Yet the sense I came away with was that the people around Biden believe (hope) that itchy blue voters are on something akin to a political rumspringa, and, after voters learn more about Kennedy, they will eventually come home to the Democratic Party and its kindly 81-year-old nominee once summer ends and the election’s existential stakes become more immediate. Kennedy is making a different bet.

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