Robert F. Kennedy Jr. could walk away with a win in the New Hampshire primary next year — a scenario few mainstream Democrats have let sink in.
Although Kennedy, whose embrace of conspiracies concerns the establishment, is unlikely to clinch the party’s nomination, he sees a conceivable path to victory in the Granite State, thanks to Biden’s push for a new primary calendar and past poor performance.
While a victory there would hardly spell doom for the incumbent president, it could be a high-profile embarrassment at a time when he faces low approval ratings.
“It was President Biden’s decision to deprive New Hampshire of its historic ‘First in the Nation Primary’ status,” said Dennis Kucinich, Kennedy’s campaign manager, who launched long shot bids for the nomination in 2004 and 2008, much to the chagrin of his party’s standard-bearers.
The former Ohio congressman and Cleveland mayor suggested they intend to court voters protective of the state’s sacred early voting slot.
“Our decision is to respect the people of New Hampshire,” Kucinich told The Hill in a Monday statement.
Biden outraged many Democrats in the state when he proposed last year to make South Carolina the first to vote in the primary, citing its diversity, and putting it ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa, which had always gone first. Though the calendar hasn’t been formally settled yet, many New Hampshire Democrats are already suggesting the state could defy the Democratic National Committee and hold their primary ahead of schedule.
Should that happen, Biden allies have indicated the president likely won’t participate — leaving an opening for a candidate like Kennedy to win.
For now, Biden’s orbit doesn’t appear bothered by the primary, while the president himself hasn’t publicly entertained the notion he could face a formidable challenger. But Kennedy, who has seen some surprisingly high polling numbers, is almost sure to seize on a possible win amid growing discontent with the administration. And some Democrats have begun arguing Biden should pay closer attention to his ascent.
Although the primary is still months away, Kennedy’s insurgent operation is in full swing. His camp has crafted a media strategy intended to elevate his profile and intrigue voters who have said they are open to another Democratic option. He is set to take part in his first cable news town hall this month, hosted by NewsNation, which shares the same owner as The Hill.
Kucinich said Kennedy is campaigning “vigorously” in New Hampshire, hoping to throw Biden off his presumed path to the 2024 nomination without any wrinkles.
He’s already gotten interest from some local leaders and activists who have grown more dissatisfied with Biden while in office. Some in the state who backed other candidates, including those who wanted to send Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to the White House, are making the case that parts of Kennedy’s background and position could make him an appealing alternative.
That’s not to say he doesn’t face challenges with these voters. Those who like him say he’ll have to overcome some negative and potentially damaging aspects defining his early campaign narrative, including dispelling misinformation about vaccines in the post-coronavirus era.
“The path for RFK lies not in his courting of independent conspiracy theorists, but in his clear-eyed, uncorrupted American visions for sustainable foreign and environmental policy,” said Michael Strand, a Democrat and elected town councilor in Bedford, an affluent suburb of Manchester, N.H.
Indeed, some New Hampshire Democrats believe Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and Green New Deal supporter, can make inroads on presenting a stronger climate and international platform than Biden, betting he will use the rural and outdoor-friendly state to his advantage.
Strand says Kennedy can make the case against “corporate chemical pollution” and can be helpful in “amplifying our voices” over things like clean drinking water. Biden has recently infuriated activists for what many perceive as caving to Big Oil interests through a series of concessions to moderate Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Some also see an opening for Kennedy to share a new perspective for America’s role on the international stage. Sanders appealed to the state’s independent-minded population by offering a dovish approach to the party’s foreign policy doctrine. Independent voters can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries, making them an important bloc.
Kennedy is also using his family name to position himself as an extension of former President Kennedy’s legacy.
It wasn’t a coincidence that he chose New Hampshire to deliver what his campaign billed as a “major foreign policy speech” at Saint Anselm College this week.
“Marking the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s peace speech at American University, Mr. Kennedy will announce a fundamentally new direction for American foreign policy,” the campaign statement reads. “With his election in 2024, our country’s decades-long journey into military imperialism will be over. We will instead become again the exemplar of peace, freedom, and democracy that once inspired the world.”
Although his foreign and domestic agenda may be substantial enough to distinguish himself from Biden, some New Hampshire Democrats also see a path that embraces traditional voter courtship over the finer points of policy.
“There’s a special connection a candidate makes here, both because of direct voter contact and the way unpretentious attitudes are honored here,” said Cullen Tiernan, a progressive and labor advocate based in Concord.
“Bobby Kennedy Jr. embodies that connection, and as demonstrated by his high favorability numbers, he can bypass a lot of mainstream noise to make direct connections with voters,” Tiernan said.
Democrats sympathetic to Kennedy concede he faces an uphill climb nationally. Still, the success of other anti-establishment crusaders could provide a roadmap for him.
Sanders won the 2020 primary in New Hampshire handily, edging out a more crowded field of traditional Democrats. During that primary, Biden was essentially a nonentity. He came in fifth, leaving voters and some of his state-level advisers and surrogates unconvinced about his overall prospects. He even left the state early on primary night and headed to South Carolina, where he course-corrected his campaign for an overwhelming victory.
If he loses or is severely impaired by Kennedy in New Hampshire, Biden’s chances of losing the state in the general election are likely to increase. The state has only four electoral votes, but Democrats don’t want to leave anything on the table in what’s expected to be another tight November contest.
Still, progressives who see the merits in Kennedy’s bid acknowledge a lot ultimately could be left up to Biden. The Democratic establishment in the state is still overwhelmingly in his camp, and while there are sour grapes over his push to demote their early voting status, even those willing to consider his bid say the party’s stronghold could be hard to penetrate.
If Biden shows up regularly and decides to debate Kennedy, who has argued a one-on-one forum would be bad for the president, some say that could complicate the outcome even further.
“Whether he has a path to nomination, or even winning New Hampshire, is yet unknown, but that will largely depend on Joe Biden,” Strand said. “Will Biden show up for New Hampshire? Will Biden reinstate our ‘First in the Nation Primary’ status and come win renomination the right way?”