GREENVILLE, S.C. — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his staff want to project the nephew of a late president and member of a storied American political family is a viable and major candidate for the White House, rather than the longshot who’s polling nearly 60 points behind the incumbent president.
Kennedy’s staff introduces him to crowds and journalists as “Mr. Kennedy,” even though he introduced himself to a reporter as “Bobby.”
Kennedy, who is challenging President Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, is starting to hire staff and open offices in South Carolina, the state that propelled the president to the 2020 Democratic nomination and to the White House.
But the Democratic Party, which is rallying behind the incumbent president, has been questioning Kennedy’s campaign, including whether he holds the party’s values. Despite those obstacles, Kennedy is bringing his dark horse campaign to South Carolina believing he’s in a position to perform well in the Feb. 3 First in the Nation primary, knowing the Palmetto State could be the ballgame in the nominating contest.
“I’m somebody who’s an outsider coming in to a political system (with) 40 years of fighting on behalf of Americans against this corrupt merger of state and corporate power that is the central edifice my campaign,” Kennedy told South Carolina reporters recently.
The Kennedy campaign has hired Daryl Scott as its South Carolina director. Scott ran as the Democratic nominee for Congress in the state’s 7th Congressional District in 2022 against Russell Fry. He is among the roughly dozen paid staff the campaign has on the ground, Kucinich said.
Kennedy’s campaign opened a headquarters this month in Orangeburg, a city along the Interstate 95 corridor in the heart of the South Carolina 6th Congressional District, a blue stronghold represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s lone Democratic delegation member and a fervent Biden backer.
But Kennedy’s campaign won’t say the move is meant to reach out specifically to Black voters, who make up about 60% of the electorate in the state’s typical Democratic primary.
“Well, I mean, we’re appealing to all the voters in this state,” Kennedy said in a one-on-one interview with The State. “It was a decision of convenience for us rather than politically targeted.”
Campaign manager Dennis Kucinich said the Kennedy campaign, which ended the second quarter with $4.5 million cash on hand, plans to open more offices in the state.
Winning South Carolina is key to reaching the White House.
Since 1992, the winner of the Democratic nominating contest in the Palmetto State has gone on to win the nomination with the exception of 2004, when the party nominated John Kerry, but John Edwards won the South Carolina primary. Edwards, however, went on to be Kerry’s running mate.
Biden didn’t win the first three nominating contests in 2020 but was propelled to the nomination after winning South Carolina. Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee chose South Carolina to kick off the 2024 Democratic nominating process.
“We’re going to break this election open in South Carolina. That’s my prediction,” Kucinich said.
Kennedy is trailing by a healthy margin in national polls for the Democratic nomination. A recent Quinnipiac University Poll had Biden leading with 72% of support among likely Democrat voters nationally. Kennedy had 13%.
Before Kennedy’s remarks in front a crowd of about 600 people in Greenville Monday, where some people stood along the walls to listen to his stump speech, the nephew of John F. Kennedy pointed to recent a poll commissioned by American Values 2024, a SuperPAC supporting Kennedy, showing Kennedy with 24% of the support among Democratic primary voters in South Carolina. Biden, who is running for a second term, has 55%.
“That puts me in a better position than any other candidate except for Trump or Biden,” Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, said in his distinctly raspy voice, caused by Spasmodic dysphonia, a chronic neurological voice disorder. “It puts me way ahead of (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis and other people in the Republican Party whose candidacies are taken very seriously.”
Kennedy’s operation is still a work in progress. For instance, absent a playlist to entertain the crowd before Kennedy’s Greenville stump, Kucinich, acting as emcee, led “Kennedy” chants before the candidate and his wife, actress Cheryl Hines, took the stage.
“What we’ve been hearing from everyone is that the working class is being neglected,” Hines said when introducing Kennedy. “You’re gonna hear why he’s uniquely qualified to fight for the working class, because I’ve watched him for years fight against corporations that were stealing from the middle class.”
The campaign is still deciding on a walk-on song for his events, but Kennedy said he would like it to be Oliver Anthony’s viral “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a country-folk song that touches on high taxes and elites holding other Americans down. The song recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and has become something of a conservative anthem.
“It basically sounds like my stump speech,” said Kennedy, whose recent South Carolina swing included stops in Charleston, Florence, Spartanburg and Sumter.
Kennedy has spoken out against vaccine mandates and questioned whether the U.S. should be in involved in the war in Ukraine. He has been criticized for promoting conspiracy theories during his campaign.
Despite his campaign hiring Republicans and receiving donations from GOP donors, Kennedy insists that his values align with the Democratic Party, calling himself a “Kennedy Democrat” who shares the concerns his father, Robert Kennedy, and his uncle had.
“All of the issues that I’m concerned with are traditional Democratic issues. … (The) Democratic Party traditionally has been the party that was skeptical of the military industrial complex, that wanted to lead with negotiation rather than war, that serve the middle class in our country, in the working class of our country, rather than Wall Street,” Kennedy said.
Despite a hiccup recently on his abortion stance, where he appeared to support a ban after the first three months of pregnancy, Kennedy said he supports abortion rights and bodily autonomy, saying it’s a decision women need to make with their doctor or their minister.
”I’m pro-choice on abortion,” Kennedy said. “I would say that I’ve spent my life at the forefront of the environmental battle, which is a battle that is one of the chief concerns of the Democratic Party.”
Richard McFeely, 53, of Greenville, is an entrepreneur who plans to support Kennedy in the Democratic primary after following the campaign for a few months.
“I’ve heard of him before because of the environmental work he does,” McFeely said. “When you actually listen to him … he doesn’t seem that irrational to me because doesn’t seem crazy. He backs up everything he says with facts, you can check those facts. I did check some of those, and everything checks out. That’s why I like what he was saying.”
Kennedy’s remarks to the Greenville crowd touched on inflation and the concentration of home ownership in the hands of corporations. He spoke out against the war in Iraq and spoke against corporate power. He talked about his court battle against Monsanto and how he would fix the country’s health care system.
He said the country’s high death count from COVID-19 is because people had other underlying chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes.
“Republicans and the Democrats are all fighting each other over Obamacare, Medicaid for all, public option, all of these different methodologies for paying the health care bill,” Kennedy said. “If you really look, all of those arguments are really about how to move deckchairs around on the Titanic. The the real issue is how do we reduce the cost of health care, and the way that we do that is by ending chronic disease.”
Kennedy is in the race as leading Democrats are supporting the incumbent president. South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Christale Spain said the state party is looking forward to reelecting Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Spain also went on to knock Kennedy’s candidacy.
“No amount of distraction from a person who spews anti-Semitic rhetoric, is a dangerous anti-vaxxer and can’t decide whether or not he supports a national abortion ban will change that,” Spain said. “We’re battling enough of those candidates in the Republican primary.”
Kennedy pushed back against the party’s opposition to his candidacy.
“We’re living in a time when many Americans feel this system is rigged, and we don’t live in the Soviet Union where the party picks the candidate and tells people who to vote for,” Kennedy said. “We still live in the United States, and we’re supposed to have fair elections here, and it’s good for our country to have choice.”