Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced Monday that he would end his primary challenge to President Biden and instead run for the White House as an independent.
And with the announcement not only did a long-running GOP effort to elevate him in the service of embarrassing Biden go up in smoke, but Kennedy now appears to pose a potential spoiler threat by taking more votes from former president Donald Trump than Biden.
What has resulted is a remarkable turnabout in how Republicans and the right talk about Kennedy.
In recent days, the Republican National Committee has called Kennedy “just another radical, far-left Democrat” while detailing 23 reasons Republicans should oppose him. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Kennedy is a “typical elitist liberal, and voters won’t be fooled.” And Trump’s campaign made it even clearer that it fears a potential spoiler candidacy from Kennedy, who is much more popular with Republicans than Democrats.
“Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement. He added that an “RFK candidacy is nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy to cash in on his family’s name.”
This is a far cry from how the right — and even Trump himself — once talked about Kennedy. And to the extent MAGA voters are “fooled” into thinking he’s one of them, Republicans will have themselves to blame.
While Republicans are now pitching Kennedy as an opportunist and a radical, Trump in late June vouched for Kennedy’s character and “common sense.”
“He’s a very smart guy, and a good guy,” Trump said, adding: “He’s a very good man, and his heart is in the right place.”
“He’s a common-sense guy, and so am I,” Trump said. “So, whether you’re conservative or liberal, common sense is common sense.”
While they now suggest Kennedy should be persona non grata for conservative voters, key Trump-aligned strategists including Stephen K. Bannon and Roger Stone have pushed Kennedy as a possible running mate for Trump.
Stone in April called a Trump-Kennedy ticket a “dream ticket,” while Bannon said two months ago that it would lead to a “massive landslide” in Trump’s favor.
Bannon even called Kennedy’s more liberal views “irrelevant” in the broader context.
“I understand that he doesn’t have policies on life and guns that are absolutely perfect and aligned with MAGA — there’s no doubt about that — but he’s talking about the central issues facing the country, as Donald Trump is, and that’s why the other stuff is irrelevant,” Bannon said in June, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” motto.
This is how Republicans often talked about Kennedy — acknowledging the ways in which he is out of step with the GOP but playing down the significance of that.
The other leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), acknowledged those political differences in late July. But he also said he might appoint Kennedy to a key position at the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Another candidate who has made inroads with MAGA Republicans, Vivek Ramaswamy, has also floated Kennedy as his possible running mate.
And Bannon and Stone have hardly been the only conservative media influencers to sing Kennedy’s praises. When Kennedy launched his campaign in April, then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson also vouched for Kennedy’s character and alignment with the MAGA movement on the most important issues.
“Bobby Kennedy himself is not extreme. He is deeply insightful, and above all he is honest,” Carlson said, adding: “We’re not Democrats, but Bobby Kennedy is one of the most remarkable people we have ever met, and we are honored to have him on our show.”
While the Trump campaign now calls Kennedy’s campaign a “vanity project,” Carlson assured of Kennedy: “He’s not running to get rich. He’s trying to make things better.”
House Republicans also invited Kennedy to testify in July — an extraordinary invitation for a current presidential candidate — and promoted him as a serious combatant in the battle against censorship.
“It’s why Mr. Kennedy is running for president — to help us expose and stop what’s going on,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), now a top GOP candidate to become House speaker.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) added while introducing Kennedy, “It is for this that Mr. Kennedy finds himself receiving the scorn of both the political left and right because if one dares challenge the orthodoxy of the powers that be, then one is their enemy.”
It was around that time that the right’s sudden interest in Kennedy did prove too much for at least one Republican congresswoman. Shortly before the hearing, none other than Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) stepped forward to urge her party to slow its roll in embracing him.
“So I agree with Bobby Kennedy on a lot of things,” she said, citing his position on vaccines and the CIA. “But I tell you what: I think there’s a lot of Republicans that have been fooled by him. He’s not a Republican, everyone. He’s very much a Democrat.”
Now he’s an independent. And a lot of Republicans are probably wishing they had heeded Greene’s advice earlier.