Mar 26, 2024 - Politics & Policy

The battle for the Kennedy name heats up

Photo illustration of a grid of Kennedy family photos with JFK and RFK Jr. at the center

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Bettmann, Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images,

An extraordinary public feud between Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his family has taken on new urgency in recent weeks, as Democrats fear the power of Kennedy nostalgia could spoil President Biden's re-election.

Why it matters: RFK Jr.'s independent campaign is drawing an average of 10% in national polls — most of which former President Trump is leading. Fearing he could tip the election to Trump, America's most prominent political dynasty is at war with one of its own.

Driving the news: RFK Jr., a former Democrat and prominent vaccine skeptic, is betting on a boost to his anti-establishment campaign when he announces his running mate Tuesday at a rally in Oakland.

  • RFK Jr. has leaned heavily on the popularity of his father and uncle as political and cultural icons. A Super Bowl ad this year reprised a famous JFK jingle to boost his candidacy.
  • On Saturday, RFK Jr. will host a celebration of Cesar Chavez Day as he launches a version of JFK's historic "Viva Kennedy!" platform — a model that gave birth to the modern Latino vote.

Zoom in: Four of RFK Jr.'s siblings have condemned his independent campaign as "dangerous to the country," saying in a statement last October that he "does not share the same values, vision or judgment" as their father.

  • Kennedy apologized to his family after the Super Bowl ad — which superimposed his face over images of JFK — triggered backlash.
  • RFK Jr. blamed an allied super PAC for running the ad without his "involvement or approval," but he kept the video pinned to his X profile.

The intrigue: Around 50 Kennedys gathered with Biden at the White House for St. Patrick's Day, sharing a viral photo from a meeting that's expected to usher in a more public phase of campaigning from the Kennedy clan, according to NBC News.

  • Kerry Kennedy, RFK Jr.'s sister, quoted Biden telling her and her kids in the Oval Office: "Your dad and grandpa was one of two people who inspired me to go into politics."
  • Stephen Kennedy Smith, a nephew to JFK, was not so subtle in what he called his first-ever social media message — warning that RFK Jr. was "promoting false information, conspiracy theories, and social mistrust."

What they're saying: "Bobby is unquestionably intelligent and can be quite compelling as a speaker. But if you're thinking of voting for RFK Jr, please ask yourself why many of the people who know him best are against his candidacy," Smith wrote.

The big picture: Biden's ties to the Kennedy family run deep.

  • In a statement last year commemorating the 60th anniversary of JFK's assassination, Biden called RFK one of his "greatest political heroes" and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy one of his "closest friends."
  • Three Kennedys serve in Biden's diplomatic corps: Joe Kennedy III, special envoy for Northern Ireland; Caroline Kennedy, ambassador to Australia; and Victoria Kennedy, ambassador to Austria.
  • Maria Shriver — JFK's niece, the former first lady of California and founder of the Women's Alzheimer's Movement — was among first lady Jill Biden's guests at this year's State of the Union.

The other side: RFK Jr. has downplayed the political divisions within his family, telling NBC News last month that they were "raised in a milieu where we debated" and that everyone is "entitled to their opinion."

  • Rob Lucero, director RFK Jr.'s Latino outreach team, told Axios that many Kennedys are supporting the campaign in spite of "others who are essentially employees of the Democratic Party, the media and the Biden administration."
  • "He's the namesake of his martyr father. He's John's nephew. He's a very specific Kennedy, and he's lived with that and known that all his life," Lucero said.

Axios' Russell Contreras contributed reporting.

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