When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made a sharp turn this month to leave the party of his dynastic family, some of his siblings — including Maryland’s former lieutenant governor — offered a stinging rebuke.
Kennedy’s abandonment of the Democratic Party to run for president as an independent was, in their view, “dangerous to our country.”
“Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment,” wrote former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and three of her siblings, the children of Robert F. Kennedy. “Today’s announcement is deeply saddening for us. We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country.”
The junior Kennedy, who has pushed anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and never held public office, is considered a long shot to win the presidency. But in a contest that might be a rematch of 2020 — both in terms of the major party nominees and the closeness of the race — Kennedy’s presence on the ballot could make a difference in the outcome.
Other alternate options — such as the prospect of former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan running on a new centrist-focused ticket — could add even more uncertainty.
Here are some of the possible third-party and independent challengers in a potential Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch next November, what it would take for them to get onto the ballot, and the historical tides they’d be up against.
His family’s Maryland ties
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy. His father, Bobby Kennedy, is a former U.S. senator and attorney general who was assassinated during his own presidential campaign in 1968.
The family has many ties to Maryland.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the oldest of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, ran unsuccessfully in 1986 for a U.S. House seat based in Baltimore County. She went on to serve two terms as lieutenant governor under Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening. As the Democratic nominee to succeed Glendening in 2002, she lost the general election to Republican Bob Ehrlich.
Her cousin, former state Del. Mark K. Shriver, in the same year narrowly lost a Montgomery County-based congressional race to Chris Van Hollen, who is now a U.S. senator. Shriver’s parents were the Westminster-born Sargent Shriver, who helped create the Peace Corps, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the sisters of John and Robert Kennedy. They raised their family, also including former California first lady Maria Shriver, in North Bethesda.
Even before this fall, Kennedy Townsend and some of her family members publicly distanced themselves from their brother over his conspiracy theories and promotion of misinformation about vaccines, including the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. Kennedy Townsend, along with her brother, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and her daughter, the late Maeve Kennedy McKean, wrote in a 2019 op-ed that RFK Jr. was complicit in spreading “dangerous misinformation” that was leading to a resurgence of measles cases.
When he later began speaking out against COVID-19 vaccines, Kennedy Townsend advocated publicly for them.
“There’s nothing safe, 100%, all the time … but vaccinations go right so much more of the time and are so much safer than the alternative,” she said in a video for the pro-vaccination nonprofit organization Why We Vaccinate in early 2021.
The family mostly stayed quiet earlier this year as Kennedy started a Democratic primary campaign against Biden. He appeared on conservative media, criticizing the United States’ involvement in supporting Ukraine and Biden’s southern border policies, among others. A former environmental lawyer, he has talked about reducing military spending to invest in domestic issues.
Kennedy Townsend could not be reached for comment.
Signs of a state campaign
Independent and minor party candidates for president have never approached anything close to success nationwide or in Maryland.
Ross Perot’s independent bids in the 1990s got the closest, but even taking a fifth of the national popular vote in 1992 wasn’t enough to win a single Electoral College vote. In Maryland, Perot won 14% of the vote in 1992 and 6.5% four years later, when Democrat Bill Clinton won the state.
No challenger since has gotten that close. Democrats have won Maryland’s Electoral College votes handily since George H.W. Bush was the last Republican contender to narrowly win statewide, in 1988.
RFK Jr., looking to break that trend, already has a campaign presence in Maryland.
Josh Mazer, an Annapolis resident who lobbied against vaccine mandates years before COVID-19, is Maryland state director for the campaign. A group he was involved in called Informed Choice Maryland supported Republican Dan Cox in his unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial campaign. Like Kennedy, Cox criticized vaccine mandates and government-mandated school and business closures during the pandemic.
Mazer said he was not authorized by the Kennedy campaign to speak to a reporter. A Facebook page he runs shows he’s been traveling the state to meet potential supporters and hand out information.
Stefanie Spear, a spokesperson for Kennedy’s national campaign, would say only that “a robust ballot-access team” would work to get Kennedy’s name onto the ballot in every state.
Before Kennedy’s party switch, he raised $87,737 from 123 Maryland residents this year, according to a Baltimore Sun review of his campaign finance filings. About half of that total came from just 10 individuals who donated at least $3,000 each. Twenty-two other states were larger sources of funds for his campaign.
Kennedy also paid a Prince George’s County-based law firm, Holloway Law Office, nearly $77,000 for unspecified legal services between March and the end of September, his filings show. That accounted for almost two-thirds of his legal spending in that period. The firm’s website says it specializes in campaign finance law. It did not respond to a request for comment.
‘I wouldn’t shut the door’
Kennedy might not be the only candidate looking to give voters an alternative choice in 2024.
Hogan, who declined earlier this year to run in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, has kept his options open, indicating in recent months that he would consider running as a third-party candidate if Trump and Biden win their nominations.
“If the country is in that bad of a shape next spring and those are the two nominees and it looks like there’s a path … I wouldn’t shut the door to that opportunity,” Hogan said this month in an interview with Bloomberg.
No Labels, a Washington, D.C.-based centrist group in which Hogan has been active, has started the process of creating a party to potentially form a ticket.
Hogan said he has “no interest in being a spoiler,” referring to the possibility a third-party bid wouldn’t succeed and would instead only ruin another candidate’s chance.
And while he said he’s “more confused than ever” about the right path, he’s kept open his fundraising apparatus, a political nonprofit organization called An America United.
Cornel West, a social leader and philosopher, has announced he will pursue an independent bid.
How would they get onto the ballot?
In Maryland, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have a Feb. 9 deadline to submit paperwork or be recognized by Maryland’s secretary of state to appear on the May 14 primary ballot.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Those representing other parties and unaffiliated candidates have until July 1 to file an initial “declaration of intent” signifying their goal to appear on the general election ballot. By Aug. 5, they must file signatures and other forms showing some level of support in the state.
For unaffiliated candidates running statewide, that means 10,000 signatures from registered Maryland voters. For third-party candidates, it means filing a “certificate of nomination” indicating they’ve been nominated by their party.
But for newly recognized parties — such as a No Labels party — organizers must also submit paperwork that includes 10,000 registered voters, a state chairperson, 25 members of the party’s governing body and party bylaws.
Those requirements are more strict than some states that ask for just a few thousand signatures and far less strict than others. Arizona, for instance, requires minor party candidates to gather 34,000 signatures — with restrictions on where they come from — and independent candidates to collect more than 43,000 signatures.
The only parties actively recognized in Maryland are Democratic, Republican and Libertarian. Previously recognized parties, such as the Green or the Bread and Roses that appeared on the 2020 presidential ballot, would need to go through the party recognition process again because they did not have candidates who earned at least 1% of the vote in the 2022 gubernatorial election.
As of last month, there were 2.2 million Democrats, 988,000 Republicans, 18,200 Libertarians, 875,000 unaffiliated and 53,400 other minority party voters registered in Maryland.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.