Robert F. Kennedy is headed for a breakup with the Democratic Party

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appears headed for a breakup with the party his family defined for generations, teasing that he’s preparing to ditch the Democrats in a “historic” announcement Monday in which he is expected to launch an independent presidential campaign against President Joe Biden. 

The split is mutual, though hardly amicable.

His campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which started in April, evolved from an annoyance for party leaders to a full-frontal assault on them; he now claims Democratic officials are conspiring to “rig” the primaries against him, citing his familiar blend of half-truths and outright fabrications.

Kennedy’s conspiracy theorizing and association with fringe figures like Alex Jones have long made him something of a black sheep in his family, which otherwise remains true blue. And his impending self-exile puts him less in Camelot than in the camp of former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who left the Democratic Party after she claimed nefarious forces stunted her own presidential bid in 2020. (Kennedy has suggested she could be his secretary of state.)

Meanwhile, Democrats — a sizable minority of whom seemed initially willing to overlook his baggage in their search for an alternative to Biden — have grown to increasingly dislike Kennedy.

“He is taking a dive among Democrats,” said Tim Malloy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University poll. “A lot of Americans would entertain somebody from another party, and he’s pretty popular with a lot of Republicans.”

A Quinnipiac survey last month found 48% of Republicans have favorable opinions of Kennedy and 18 % dislike him. Meanwhile, only 14% of Democrats are favorable toward him, while 57% are unfavorable. Independents were evenly divided.

In a teaser video for his announcement Monday in Philadelphia, Kennedy said he will unveil “a path to the White House” that will tackle corruption in “both political parties” and amount to a “sea change in American politics.”

He has for weeks been foreshadowing a possible independent White House bid, setting an Oct. 15 deadline for the decision and meeting with the chair of the Libertarian Party. His campaign didn’t dispute a report by the politics and media site Mediaite that he will announce an independent run, simply replying to questions with a link to the event.

With many Americans unenthusiastic about a potential rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump, it’s unclear what Kennedy’s presence on the ballot would mean for either candidate.

“Trump’s ceiling and floor are very close together — he needs a third party to get over 50%,” said Matt Bennett, an executive vice president of the moderate Democratic group Third Way, which has sounded the alarm about the potential for a third candidate to act as a spoiler for Biden. “We’re most worried about No Labels, because they are aiming at the heart of the anti-Trump coalition, while RFK is aimed at the fringes. But either way, it’s very dangerous.”

Close Biden allies have also expressed concern that a potential third-party candidate could eat into Biden’s share of the vote next year.

Other Democrats, however, say they’re not concerned. That’s especially notable because Democrats tend to worry about everything. They think Kennedy is just as likely to eat into Trump’s support as Biden’s.

“The portions of the electorate that are interested in Robert Kennedy Jr. tend to be coming from Donald Trump’s conspiracy theory base,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Sunday on MSNBC. “So if he’s running as an independent … I think that may end up hurting Donald Trump or the Republican nominee more than Joe Biden.”

It’s unclear whether Kennedy will even be able to get on the ballot in key states, which is a monumental task without the help of a major party.

Ballot access could be aided by piggybacking on an existing third party, and Kennedy might be welcomed in at least three.

In July, he attended a libertarian conference in Memphis, Tennessee, where he met with activists and sat down for lunch with Libertarian Party Chairwoman Angela McArdle, who said the two agreed to stay in touch if he changed his mind about running as a Democrat.

“He’s certainly a Democrat, but he’s willing to take chances politically, be vulnerable with controversial positions,” McArdle said, pointing to his libertarian stances on issues like Covid vaccination mandates and opposition to support for Ukraine. “He’s definitely courting our vote, which I really appreciate.”

A newer third party, the People’s Party, commissioned a poll that it released Friday in a memo arguing Kennedy should ditch the Dems.

“The Democratic Party is a dead end for Kennedy’s campaign,” the memo reads. “Going independent will help him attract support from across the political spectrum, bring together an unprecedented coalition, and spark a political realignment.”

The Green Party could also be a potential home for Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, especially after philosopher Cornel West left the party Thursday to continue his presidential campaign as an independent.

The Green Party is actively recruiting other possible candidates, former nominee Jill Stein said, but she said she isn’t aware of any communication with Kennedy or his emissaries.

Kennedy has said the Democratic Party abandoned his values, not the other way around, and insisted for months that he was committed to reforming it.

But in recent weeks, he has been laying the groundwork for his departure by claiming the Democratic National Committee’s machinations to “rig” the primaries against him leave him no choice. 

The DNC has not publicly responded to Kennedy’s claims and declined to comment when asked by NBC News, but it makes no apologies for supporting Biden. Experts say Kennedy’s claims rest on a major misreading — intentional or not — of party rules and processes.

“They come off as not knowing what they are talking about or doing,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist who is an expert on both parties’ primary systems.

For instance, Kennedy’s central claim about party elites’ planning to overrule him at next year’s convention, even if he wins the most votes, ignores superdelegate reforms implemented after the 2016 election to prevent that exact situation.

And his campaign claimed that “in 2020 the DNC created a new kind of delegate: the PLEO” to stop him, when that type of delegate has been around since 1980.

Even some Democrats who vehemently disagree with the party’s strategy of circling the wagons around Biden say Kennedy is off-base.

“The fix is in, but does it matter for RFK? No,” said a longtime DNC member who has been a frequent critic of his party’s establishment. “Bobby has shrunk to half of what he was, but that’s on him, not on the DNC.”

Biden and the DNC actually created an opportunity for Kennedy by trying to strip New Hampshire and Iowa of their first-in-the-nation primary status, which led to a standoff in which the states say they will proceed with their contests but Biden may be prohibited by party rules from putting his name on their ballots. That leaves an opening for an anti-establishment challenger.

But Kennedy has held only eight events in New Hampshire and five in Iowa, according to an NBC News tally through Sept. 24.

“He’s been here for quick stops. … Definitely have not seen what I call a campaign,” said Pete D’Alessandro, a progressive activist who helped run both of the campaigns by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in Iowa.

Kennedy has held 37 events in early states combined, according to the tally, fewer than candidates on the GOP side, like businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have each held more than 90.

A progressive activist who co-founded a group urging Biden to drop out — he protested outside a DNC meeting in subfreezing temperatures last February — said Kennedy squandered an opportunity to exploit dissatisfaction on the left.

“There’s definitely an appetite for an alternative to Biden, but he’s not palatable,” said Norman Solomon, a co-founder of Step Aside Joe! and Roots Action. “The more people learn about Kennedy, the more excitement has faded among Democrats.”

Solomon said Kennedy further alienated lefties by muddying his stance on abortion, declaring he would be extremely pro-Israel (after being recorded on several occasions making comments seen as antisemetic) during an era of growing sympathy for Palestinians on the left, and vowing to crack down on undocumented immigration.

“Ideologically, he’s all over the map,” Solomon said. “It’s hard to see where the hell he is.”

Still, polls show that as many as 10% of Democrats still say they would vote for Kennedy in a primary and that some will follow him.

Rachelle Bowser, 36, a copywriter based in Pittsburgh, had grown disillusioned with politics before finding out about Kennedy’s campaign on Reddit. She then started a Discord group for his supporters and now hosts parties for the campaign.

“I’ve always been a progressive Democrat. Always registered as a Democrat,” she said. “But I feel like the Democratic Party is largely sponsored by lobbyists, and it’s hard for them to tell us that they’re going to make changes when they’re on the payroll.”

She said “a lot of people feel politically homeless” these days and are looking for alternatives.

“I’d follow him; I’d vote independent,” she added. “I don’t have brand loyalty to the Democratic Party.”

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