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Joe Biden’s newest primary challenger is an anti-vaxxer Kennedy scion

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent anti-vaxxer and environmentalist, announced he’s challenging Joe Biden.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attends the No Green Pass protest at Arco Della Pace on November 13, 2021, in Milan, Italy.
Alessandro Bremec/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. filed paperwork on Wednesday to challenge Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential primary.

It’s the third time a member of the Kennedy family has sought to primary a sitting Democratic president. In 1968, Kennedy’s father Robert challenged Lyndon Johnson, who soon announced that he would not pursue a second full term. In 1980, Kennedy’s uncle Ted challenged Jimmy Carter and narrowly lost a bruising, extended primary campaign. Both of those men were sitting US senators and national figures who had become icons to a generation of Democrats. Kennedy Jr., however, is a vocal anti-vaccine activist who long falsely maintained a link between childhood vaccines and autism and has never before run for political office.

Yet, Kennedy still has the potential to complicate a Democratic primary far more than Marianne Williamson, the New Age author who is Biden’s only other announced rival. Kennedy Jr. not only is running as a scion of one of the few political dynasties left in American politics but with a public profile that predates his anti-vax turn. Kennedy was long the head of Riverkeeper, a prominent environmental nonprofit, and has been a vocal proponent of a baby-boomer-era brand of environmentalism that includes ardent opposition to nuclear power.

Kennedy’s announcement was not a bolt out of the blue. In March, the political scion visited New Hampshire and tweeted out a link to an exploratory website several weeks ago that said, “Help me decide whether to run for president.” It went on to say that if he mounted a campaign, his top priority would be “to end the corrupt merger between state and corporate power that has ruined our economy, shattered the middle class, polluted our landscapes and waters, poisoned our children, and robbed us of our values and freedoms.”

Still, what will almost certainly grab attention are Kennedy’s anti-vaccine views. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, he had served as a locus of misinformation about vaccines that drew condemnation from his own siblings after he reportedly helped stoke a measles outbreak in Samoa in 2019. Since then, he has become a vocal opponent of Covid-19 vaccines and even went so far as to compare the public health response to Covid-19 to the Holocaust while speaking at an anti-vaccine rally in Washington in 2022.

This rhetoric presents a significant political challenge to his hope of appealing to Democratic voters simply because of how polarized the debate over Covid-19 vaccines has become. Democrats have been far more supportive of the public health response to the pandemic than Republicans, where a strong strain of vaccine skepticism has emerged in recent years. This presents an interesting political dilemma for Kennedy. After all, while there may now be a constituency for a single-issue presidential campaign about the efficacy of vaccines, it just doesn’t seem to be within the Democratic Party.

One Democratic veteran of multiple presidential campaigns told Vox, “I think if he wasn’t vehemently anti-vax there’s a world where the perceived longing for an alternative to Biden to appear on the horizon could have afforded an opportunity for someone with name and money to at least be interesting.” The longtime operative added, “Saying ‘if he weren’t anti-vax’ is like saying, ‘I’d love to live in Chicago if winters weren’t so cold.’”

Kennedy is also running for office at a moment when the political influence of his family is at the lowest point in generations. His nephew Joe Kennedy III’s loss in a 2020 Senate campaign in Massachusetts where he sought to challenge incumbent Ed Markey, marked the first time a Kennedy had ever lost an election in the Bay State and commenced the longest stretch without a Kennedy in public office since John F. Kennedy’s first election to Congress in 1946.

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