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RFK Jr. Needs to Look at the Playbook of an Old Family Rival

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Environmental activist and vaccines critic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. launched his primary challenge to President Joe Biden last week and attempted to wrap himself in his family’s legacy.

With former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, weighing in on what it means to be a “Kennedy Democrat” as he backed the new candidate, the Kennedy clan was front and center during the campaign launch on Wednesday, even if many of its members are backing Biden.

For his part, during an often rambling address at the Boston rally, Kennedy called for political unity.

“During this campaign and during my administration my objective will be to make as many Americans as possible forget that they are Republicans or Democrats and remember that they are Americans,” Kennedy said. “We need to focus on the values we share instead of the issues that divide us.”

Still, while Kennedy talked about the family legacy and unity, he might want to study an old family rival’s playbook. Even with a recent Suffolk University poll showing him with the support of 14 percent of Biden supporters, Kennedy’s odds at winning the Democratic presidential nomination are, at best, very slim. However, Kennedy has the chance of driving Biden from the race and the perfect spot to attempt it.

Back in 1968, U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Wisc., stressing his opposition to the Vietnam War, launched a primary challenge against President Lyndon B. Johnson. With opponents of the war getting “Clean for Gene,” McCarthy upended LBJ, pulling 42 percent in the New Hampshire primary. While the president won with 50 percent, after New Hampshire, LBJ pulled out of the race, even as U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy, D-NY, the new candidate’s father, entered the contest. McCarthy, Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey duked it over the following months until Kennedy’s assassination and the chaotic Chicago convention.

Since them, other candidates have looked to New Hampshire to take down a sitting president. Former Gov. Ronald Reagan, R-Calif., got a boost when he came up just 2,000 votes short in the Granite State against then-President Gerald Ford. While his campaign launch floundered thanks in large part to the uninspiring responses he offered in an interview with Roger Mudd, U.S. Sen. Teddy Kennedy, D-Mass., offered then-President Jimmy Carter a fight in New Hampshire back in 1980. In 1992, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan came close to knocking off than President George H.W Bush in the Granite State.

Biden wasn’t exactly a favorite of New Hampshire Democrats last time out. He pulled fifth there in 2020 with 8.4 percent. The primary calendar looks different this year with South Carolina going first followed by New Hampshire and Nevada and then Georgia, with Iowa not playing its traditional role of holding the first caucus. But even with Biden’s push to move South Carolina first, New Hampshire still punches above its weight. Dark horses like Buchanan, McCarthy, Reagan, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., can make a splash in the Granite State. While he is s massive underdog and out of the Democrats’ mainstream on vaccines, if he wants to make an impact this election cycle, Kennedy needs to put it all on the line in New Hampshire–and hope he can do what his father’s old rival Gene McCarthy did and chase a sitting president out of the race.

Kevin Derby wrote this analysis. He can be reached at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com

Author

  • Kevin Derby

    Originally from Jacksonville, Kevin Derby is a contributing writer for Florida Daily and covers politics across Florida.

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