RFK Jr. faces tough choices in quest for ballot access

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is facing some pivotal choices as he seeks to gain ballot access across the country amid his independent presidential bid.

Kennedy has already gathered enough signatures to make the ballot in New Hampshire, Utah and Hawaii, and just this week he celebrated adding Nevada — a consequential swing state — to the list. His super PAC also says it has gotten enough support to appear on ballots in Georgia, Arizona and South Carolina.

But he also faces some notable challenges, including extremely high thresholds in bigger states, leaving him with the choice of potentially joining the Libertarian Party if he isn’t able to qualify in more states as an Independent.

“A strong Kennedy campaign would certainly come into play with that,” said Ron Nielson, who twice served as campaign manager for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

“By pulling from the Democrats, that’s going to damage Biden,” Nielson said.

After Super Tuesday showed a clean sweep for President Biden and nearly the same for former President Trump, Kennedy sought to shift voters’ attention to November.

“Today marks the end of the primary and the beginning of the general election,” the 70-year-old environmental attorney said earlier this week, noting the unpopularity of each candidate as a central argument.

He later offered a video rebuttal to Biden’s State of the Union address.

“I can tell you that in every state of this union, people are rejecting fear-mongering,” he said in the nine-minute video. “Eighty percent of Americans say they don’t want to be forced to choose in this election between the lesser of two evils. They’re tired of voting against something or someone.”

After bolting from the Democratic Party last fall when his primary bid failed to catch on, Kennedy’s campaign has focused intensely on pulling together enough signatures as an Independent to give Americans what he says they’re desperately seeking: an outsider.

Ideologically, he says he’s no longer in sync with Democrats and also doesn’t fit neatly with Republicans. An Independent run is symbolic, if not entirely practical.

“A growing number of Americans are rejecting divisiveness,” Kennedy said in his post-SOTU message Thursday.

While polls show Kennedy attracting varying degrees of support in some critical states — arguably enough to dent the final vote tally, if the data holds — experts say it would still take a lot for him to qualify across all 50 states before Election Day.

States have myriad individual requirements for independent candidates. In places like Tennessee, for example, a candidate must declare a vice presidential running mate in order to qualify, which Kennedy has not yet done. Others ask for tens of thousands of signatures — and well over 100,000 in Florida and Texas — and critics say he will have to scramble to meet those demands. Some also question whether he’ll have the cash needed to keep building a dedicated supporter base.

Still, Kennedy’s recent ballot successes in a handful of states have given him some traction. American Values, his super PAC, is functioning as a de facto ballot access operation tracking his progress with sign-ons.

According to an internal tally, the PAC says Kennedy is on his way to qualify for Michigan, noting he’s approaching more than 29,000 of the 30,000 signatures required by the state. Reaching the Michigan threshold would be a defining moment for Kennedy, as Biden’s vulnerabilities were made clear in the Wolverine State after a chunk of voters cast “uncommitted” ballots against him in the primary in protest against his policies in the Israel-Hamas war.

While Kennedy’s independent boosters say ballot efforts are underway, others see more merit in jumping into the Libertarian Party now, even if his political beliefs don’t totally mesh with the party.

The chair of the Libertarian National Committee, Angela McArdle, told NewsNation that Kennedy running as a Libertarian could be “mutually beneficial,” after a report in The Hill this week detailed signs of interest from Kennedy’s allies as well as party members and activists.

Ballot experts also say Kennedy would be wise to consider the Libertarian Party simply because they have established ballot access in a majority of states built on years of preexisting groundwork.

“Quite literally, you are dealing with 51 different jurisdictions, with different definitions, different procedures, and different laws, regulations,” said Christopher Thrasher, a political consultant who was Johnson’s ballot access director in 2016. “Everything is state by state.”

“It’s ridiculous. The laws have only gotten worse for independent, third-party candidates since that time,” Thrasher said. “There are states where the requirements to be an independent candidate have literally never been met like Texas, California, [and] another one is New York.”

“It would be historic, but it’s not insurmountable,” he added. “They would be remiss if they were not considering any ballot lines that currently exist.”

Democrats worry about Kennedy because he hasn’t shown signs of going away. His slow tally of smaller states, with the recent addition of some battlegrounds, has raised alarms for his competitors, while the newer consideration of appearing on the Libertarian ticket means another possible avenue for him to be a disruptor.

The results of Super Tuesday, while overall favorable to Biden, fueled questions about where Kennedy could ultimately end up. There are other third-party contenders: left-wing activist Cornel West is running as an Independent, and physician Jill Stein is campaigning for the Green Party’s nomination. Both are oriented toward the general election, but many Democrats don’t see them as on par with Kennedy as potential threats.

Additionally, Democratic challengers Rep. Dean Phillips, a centrist Minnesota congressman, and Cenk Uygur, a progressive media personality, who were both rivaling Biden, suspended their campaigns this week. Neither was able to get enough voters to back their bids.

And the more the race narrows, the more Kennedy is noticed.

Even Kennedy’s Libertarian critics who don’t want him on their ticket see the benefits of a hypothetical change. That is to say, the practical question of qualifying as a candidate is different from the policy stances with which many in the party take issue.

Within the Mises Caucus, which represents the more hardcore right-wing base of the Libertarian Party, some concede that changing to their party would likely make things easier for him.

“The big benefit that RFK or any other non-Libertarian would get from running in the [Libertarian] ticket is saving a lot of time and a lot of money,” said Aaron Harris, who chairs the Mises PAC, which is not supporting Kennedy’s bid.

“We have ballot access in a lot of states and are working toward it in others,” Harris told The Hill. “The rules often change, it’s fluid from race to race, but in the states where we do already have ballot access, whomever we nominate gets our spot on the ballot.”

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