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Feb 9, 2024, 12:33pm EST
politics

Libertarians could supercharge RFK Jr’s campaign. But can he prove he’s one of them?

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., participates in a panel discussion for the start of Black History Month at Artlounge Collective in Los Angeles on Feb. 1, 2024.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/Genaro Molina
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The News

In California, where Robert F. Kennedy Jr. lives, he needs 219,403 valid signatures to make the ballot — or 75,000 registrations with his new “We the People” party. In North Carolina, he’d need 82,542 valid signatures by May 5. And on Friday morning, the Democratic National Committee filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Kennedy’s super PAC, accusing it of “illegally coordinating” with the campaign to get him on state ballots.

One weird trick could fix that problem. The Libertarian Party, with automatic ballot access across most of the country, will pick its nominee in 107 days. And Kennedy might go for it.

“We have a really good relationship with the Libertarian Party,” Kennedy told CNN’s Michael Smerconish last week. “I feel very comfortable with most of the values of the Libertarian Party.”

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The ex-Democrat called for the release of Julian Assange at the New Hampshire libertarian PORCfest; he denounced “turnkey totalitarianism” at last year’s FreedomFest. That speech earned him an invitation to this month’s California Libertarian Party convention in Orange County, where he’ll join the party’s presidential candidates in a forum, as a potential challenger.

“I’ve unironically been told that I’m platforming Bobby Kennedy,” California Libertarian Party chairman Adrian Malagon said, with a laugh. “In what universe am I platforming a Kennedy? He’s platforming us.”

Kennedy, who has benefitted from voter angst about President Biden’s age and Donald Trump’s rap sheet, has built a following among many Libertarians. He’s done so while holding views that contradict the party — especially after the 2022 victory of the Mises Caucus, a radical faction irritated by the nominations of ex-Republicans (former Rep. Bob Barr, former Gov. Gary Johnson) who didn’t share their more doctrinaire views. Johnson was booed at a 2016 Libertarian Party debate for supporting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and for being the only candidate against abolishing driver’s licenses.

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Kennedy’s differences run deeper. The current party platform opposes state intervention in the economy; Kennedy has proposed tax-free government bonds to help Americans buy homes. The party believes that “people should be able to travel freely” across borders; Kennedy promises to “close the border” with Mexico and finish the border fence with a day one executive order. The party is “anti-war in every context,” a point its official account reiterated on X after Kennedy explained his stem-to-stern support for Israel.

“His vibes go well with the current Libertarian Party, but the policy specifics don’t,” said Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine and historian of the movement. “Policy RFK Jr. is not libertarian at all. But podcaster RFK Jr., social media RFK Jr., is well designed to appeal to the red-pilled Mises crowd.”

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David’s view

This week’s events showed exactly why Kennedy, the best-known third party candidate in America, is polling so much better than other outsiders in recent election cycles. In just one hour, last night, Joe Biden flubbed a reference to Egypt (he said “Mexico”) in a press conference called to dispel doubts about his mental fitness, and Donald Trump — celebrating a Nevada caucus win that was preordained by the state GOP — said “Turkey” when he meant “Hungary.”

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In that environment, third parties have an unusually strong chance to prove their relevance, and policy litmus tests and specifics simply don’t matter as much. Kennedy holds some views that are antithetical to the Libertarian Party. But he’s been with them on three defining issues of the Biden era: Opposing vaccine mandates, battling tech companies over free speech, and halting any further military funding for Ukraine.

And Kennedy takes Libertarians seriously. While he hasn’t been campaigning at state Libertarian Party meetings — the California convention will be his first — he’s made himself available to movement influencers. Dave Smith, a comedian and leader in the Mises faction’s LP takeover, conducted an 80-minute interview with Kennedy last week about his support for Israel. They couldn’t find common ground, but they wanted to.

“Would you consider the vice presidency?” Kennedy asked Smith.

“It’d probably be good insurance for you, because I’m no LBJ,” said Smith, who considered a run for the nomination but opted against it. “I don’t think they’d want to get you out of the way.”

“That’s exactly why I want you,” said Kennedy.

Since 1972, when the LP started running presidential candidates, it has nominated two very different kinds. The first: True believers who are completely aligned with the party’s platform, and the delegates who care enough to register and show up to the convention. (Primaries are non-binding, and only the convention vote matters.)

The second: People with existing brands and media reach who don’t commit to the entire platform and, usually, stop getting asked about it. The most electorally successful nominees fit into that second camp, led by Johnson, whose 4.5 million votes in 2016 broke every LP record.

“Notoriety and ballot access are the two things we can’t sweep under the rug,” said Malagon. “He brings a gravitas that we haven’t had in the LP in a long time. He has strong support from the general public and would help get ballot access, put us on the map.”

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The View From Libertarians

Johnson himself told Americana that he’d vote for Kennedy as the Libertarian nominee, and still consider supporting him if he stayed outside the party. He had to battle for the nomination twice, facing off against less well-known but more purist candidates in multiple convention ballots. It could be done.

“I had to defend having drivers licenses!” Johnson recalled in an interview. “Be honest, tell the truth, express your views, be transparent. If you get the nomination, great. If not, you stayed true to yourself.”

The purists are not making way for Kennedy. Michael Rectenwald, whose platform calls for abolishing the income tax and shuttering most of the national security state, has been campaigning at LP meetings and debating the rest of the field. Kennedy, he said, “thinks he can ride into Washington like a white knight and fix all of our problems.” He had no business competing with real anti-statists, and if he ran for the nomination and lost, he’d be humiliated.

“He would have the federal government guarantee a 3% mortgage rate backed up by bonds,” Rectenwald said, talking through an issue he’d heard Kennedy discuss, and planned to confront him over this month in California. “He says it’s like having a rich uncle cosign on your mortgage loan. I’m gonna ask him, what rich uncle would that be? Would that be Uncle Sam, who is $34 trillion in debt? It’s just outrageous what he wants to do.”

The Mises faction’s critics are skeptical, too. Nicholas Sarwark, who chaired the LP from 2014 to 2020, has watched the party court controversy and lose paying members under new leadership. He saw opportunity for Libertarians if they welcomed “never Trumpers” who were about to be politically homeless; he saw far less upside if the party embraced Kennedy.

“They’re casting around for somebody who gives a shit about their stupid right-wing anti-vax politics, and nobody does,” said Sarwark. “They have a candidate now. His name is Donald Trump. It’s probably the stupidest political strategy I’ve ever seen.”

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Notable

  • In Politico, Jonathan Martin warns Democrats that Kennedy and left-wing challengers will post more of a threat than the stuttering No Labels project.
  • In The New York Sun, Caroline McCaughey asks whether the Kennedy/LP flirtation can get traction. “I think that leadership is pushing this as kind of a way to be relevant at any cost,” says the leader of the LP’s Classical Liberal Caucus.
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