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In this edition: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Libertarian courtship, the Nevada primary/caucus aftermath,͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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February 9, 2024
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Americana

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David Weigel

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

Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/Genaro Molina

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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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State of Play

Nevada. The GOP’s two-step nominating process went as well as it could have for Donald Trump. On Tuesday, Republican voters followed Gov. Joe Lombardo’s advice and picked “none of these candidates” by a landslide, with 63% of the vote to 30% for Nikki Haley. No delegates were at stake, and Haley had spent months dismissing the “rigged” process, but she had to spend two days spinning it. “The disrespect that Nikki Haley showed us, she just got reciprocated,” Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald said on primary night.

Trump swept the Thursday evening caucuses with more than 96% of the vote; candidates who’d dropped out of the race were struck from that ballot, ensuring a Godzilla-versus-Bambi landslide over pastor Ryan Binkley. Trump grabbed 74% of the vote in the same day’s Virgin Islands caucus, which Haley did compete in — she appeared via video at a Republican meeting last month while Trump sent surrogates to meet GOP voters. The two victories earned him 27 delegates, padding and doubling his lead over Haley. Biden won all 36 delegates available in Tuesday’s Nevada primary, as just 6% of voters voted for the “none” option and 3% picked Marianne Williamson. She ended her campaign 24 hours later.

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Katie Porter for Senate, “Fights for You.” When Adam Schiff started running an ad portraying Republican Steve Garvey as his opponent, Porter accused him of “boxing out” female Democrats. Schiff wants Garvey, not her or Barbara Lee, to make the second round. Porter’s response ad stays away from gender politics, accusing Schiff of being a “typical politician,” and contrasting his approach with her (swing voter friendly) promise to ban congressional stock trading.

Secure NYS PAC, “Sanctuary Tom Suozzi.” Ex-Rep. Lee Zeldin swept Republicans into victory across Long Island in 2022, losing the race for governor, but setting up a PAC to keep building on their gains. That PAC is funding Secure NYS, which has added some diversity to the wave of immigration-focused ads; this one attacks Suozzi for favoring a tax hike on multimillionaires and accepting a pay raise. The closing image gets back to the main topic: Footage of migrants pummeling a police officer in Manhattan, which has aired on TV for days.

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Polls

Voting is already underway in the race to replace George Santos in Queens and Long Island, where Democrats have outspent Republicans and advertising has focused relentlessly on the migrants being shipped from Texas to New York City. Suozzi has tried to combat that by talking about his 2019 bipartisan immigration proposal, which went nowhere, but would have put billions of dollars into border security.

That may have protected him from a killer issue. By 9 points, voters say that Pilip is more likely to “address the flow of migrants.” By 20 points, they say Pilip can pass legislation “that keeps New Yorkers safer.” But Suozzi has mitigated the damage, and voters split down the middle over whether he, too, will pass such legislation. He runs six points ahead of Biden with this sample of voters — Biden trails Trump, but Suozzi leads Pilip just inside the margin of error.

Marquette’s pollsters left the field before the special counsel’s report on the president’s handling of classified documents in Delaware, before the errata about Biden’s memory, and before Thursday night’s clean-up press conference. Biden’s age, by miles, was his biggest weakness in a swing state where Democrats have won statewide since 2018. Voters have grown more positive about the economy, and the Wisconsin economy in particular. They’ve gotten more forgiving about Biden’s record, helping him make up ground to Trump on the “accomplishments” questions. Few non-Republicans call Biden “corrupt,” after a year of Hunter Biden investigations. It’s all driven underwater by the age issue, and the race is tied 49-49 in the same poll.

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On the Trail
Getty Images/Adam Gray

White House. Donald Trump’s supporters were confident that the Supreme Court would reverse decisions that kept him off state ballots, after the conservative majority sounded skeptical about that use of the 14th Amendment’s insurrection clause.

“I’m optimistic,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who’d led colleagues on an amicus brief arguing that state election officials didn’t have the power to remove candidates over “insurrection” accusations. Ashcroft had suggested last month that Joe Biden could be removed from the ballot if his border policies got interpreted as an insurrection; “this is not a slope we should start moving down.”

The president spent 24 hours on a very different problem: A special counsel report that found no criminal activity in his handling of classified documents, but made repeated references to his “poor memory,” and facts he couldn’t recall in an interview, including the year his son Beau died. “How the hell dare he,” Biden said at a Thursday night press conference, where he blamed staff for mishandling the documents and mixed up the names of the leaders of Egypt and Mexico, fueling another news cycle about his age.

“The report simply affirms what most Americans already know,” Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, Biden’s remaining primary challenger, said in a statement. “The President cannot continue to serve as our Commander in Chief beyond his term ending January 20, 2025.”

Senate. Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale jumped into the race against Sen. Jon Tester on Friday, after a year-long effort to nudge him out of the race and clear a path for businessman and Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy. In the final hours before his decision, Punchbowl News reported that House Speaker Mike Johnson was about to endorse Rosendale. He pulled back under scrutiny, saying he’d donate to Rosendale, but stop short of an endorsement; according to the Daily Beast’s Reese Gorman, Johnson promised his support to win Rosendale’s vote on the House’s Israel funding package, which fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. “Republicans cannot risk nominating a candidate who gave Jon Tester the biggest victory of his career,” NRSC chair and Montana Sen. Steve Daines said in a statement, referring to Rosendale’s 2018 defeat.

Republicans got better news in Maryland, where former Gov. Larry Hogan is readying a U.S. Senate bid. Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in the state since 1980, when Ronald Reagan nearly carried it over Jimmy Carter; Hogan won a close 2014 race for governor and an easy 2018 re-election, leaving office with high approval ratings among Democrats. But on the way out, he couldn’t get his preferred successor past a primary challenge from a Trump-supporting legislator — who wound up losing to Gov. Wes Moore in a landslide.

House. The major party nominees in New York’s 3rd Congressional district met for their first and only debate on Thursday, in Bethpage. Republican Mazi Pilip spent the hour promising to work in the House majority to fund Israel’s defense and close the border: “I don’t like to talk, I like to deliver.”

Suozzi spent it defending his own record as a moderate Democrat, and chastising Pilip for being unspecific about what she wanted to pass. Asked about the stalled Senate effort to pass a border bill, Pilip said she didn’t “know what bipartisan bill you are talking about,” because it hadn’t passed — undercutting the Democratic message that Republicans couldn’t be trusted to fix the problem.

“You can’t just do a tweet, can’t just do a press conference, you have to actually build relationships with people of both parties,” said Suozzi. “And attacking people is not gonna do that.”

“Trust me, I’m very good on that,” Pilip interjected.

“Yeah,” Suozzi said. “I’ve noticed that.”

“I’m very good on working with people,” she clarified.

“I was one of only 18 Democrats that voted to fund ICE,” Suozzi said, responding to attacks — onstage, in TV ads, and from police unions that endorsed Pilip — on how he cut ties with immigration enforcement as a county executive, after his police chief urged him to. “I was one of only 18 Democrats — I went against my party — to say we’re not going to abolish ICE, we have to support ICE.”

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Q&A
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

It’s the season of the presidential protest vote. On Tuesday, a coalition of progressive organizers gathered in Dearborn to launch Listen to Michigan, an effort to win votes for the “uncommitted” line on the Feb. 27 Democratic ballot. Muslim leaders, Arab-American mayors, and Jewish Voices for Peace planned to spend three weeks telling voters to show up, but oppose Joe Biden. That, they said, would tell the president just how many votes he’d lose, in a can’t-lose state, if he did not change course and bring about a ceasefire in Gaza.

Layla Elabed is the campaign’s manager — and the sister of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of the House. (Tlaib is not involved in the campaign, though Elabed called her “one of the few electeds at her level that we can trust.”) Elabed talked with Americana about the effort, and this is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Americana: How did this campaign get started, and when?

Layla Elabed: I can tell you exactly when it was: The 27th of January. People were throwing around this idea, talking to community leaders, calling their contacts – organizers, grassroots folks. These are folks that are dug in on other issues pertaining to Michigan voters, be it affordable housing, taking down corporate utility companies, water issues, and electoral politics.

We jumped on a zoom call and talked about the organizing efforts that were done in 2008, when Obama didn’t make the ballot for the Michigan primaries. His campaign was able to mobilize young and black voters to vote uncommitted, as a rejection of Hillary Clinton. We knew, this time, it would be an organic effort and spread like wildfire, because folks were already talking about writing in “ceasefire” or “free Palestine.” And our core team is making moves every day. We had our first phone bank last night.

Americana: January 27 was shortly after the New Hampshire primary; there, you had a campaign urging people to write in “ceasefire” as a war protest. Very few people did. What did you learn from that?

Layla Elabed: I think that advantage that we have here in Michigan, compared to the efforts in New Hampshire, is that we have an uncommitted bubble on our Democratic ballot. Historically, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans here have flexed their power through the Democratic Party, and we’re using a list of likely Democratic voters who’ve voted in past primaries. We’re calling people, texting people, and buying digital ads. And even though this is a multi-faith, multi-generational campaign, we are centering our Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters because of how this has affected them — me included. I’m Palestinian. I still have family in Palestine, in the West Bank.

Americana: What would victory look like? We’re talking right after “none of the above” beat Nikki Haley in Nevada, which surprised some people and made news. Do you need to beat Biden? To get some share of the vote?

Layla Elabed: We’re really trying to mobilize 80% of the Democratic voters who support a ceasefire.

Americana: Which is most Democrats.

Layla Elabed: Right. And we already feel that we’re winning. The Biden administration is coming to talk to folks in Michigan, even after getting booted out last week. We’re just trying to get to a threshold of at least 15% of the vote, or 10,000 votes, which in 2016 was the margin for Trump.

Americana: I’ve talked to people, and I’m sure you have too, who are just done with Biden over this issue. If the war ended today, nobody’s bringing back 30,000 dead people. Are you reaching voters who may actually vote for Biden, or people who’ll cast this vote and move on?

Layla Elabed: I can’t say what that would look like, because right now we are focused on the primary. Many Michiganders have lost friends and family in Gaza. This is due to the funding that President Biden gives unconditionally to Israel. The Muslim and Arab American community really showed up for Biden, and to have him turn his back on his base was very telling. The bare minimum that we can ask for is a permanent ceasefire and to reevaluate the United States and the Biden administration’s policy on military funding to Israel. Without those two things we can’t even talk about the possibility of supporting President Biden in the November elections.

Americana: In New Hampshire, I asked Rep. Ro Khanna — who just voted against additional Israel aid — why exactly a Democrat who wants to protest Biden’s policy shouldn’t write-in “ceasefire.” His argument, basically, was that weakening Biden with a protest vote would help Trump; right now, you want a strong Biden to negotiate with Israel. Why is he wrong?

Layla Elabed: We’re well aware that Trump is not our friend. He enacted the Muslim ban. He’s promised that he would reenact it once he gets back into office. But there’s a long time between now and November for Biden to change his policies and earn support back from voters.

But time is running out. Biden funding Netanyahu’s government makes a mockery of what he claimed when he took office, that he would fight authoritarianism and support democracy. That he was for humanitarian politics. If he’s not going to listen to us, it won’t be the voters that hand over the White House to Trump. It will be Biden and his administration.

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Next
  • four days until the special election to replace George Santos
  • 15 days until the South Carolina Republican primary
  • 25 days until Super Tuesday
  • 270 days until the 2024 presidential election
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