Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s off-the-cuff remarks about abortion restrictions has greatly disturbed Democrats, the latest outrage that has further isolated him from his party’s liberal base.
Kennedy, who is competing against President Biden for the White House, said he was in favor of a three-month federal abortion ban during an interview at the Iowa State Fair over the weekend, a hard-line position that closely mirrors conservative Republican contenders who want to curb the practice.
“I believe a decision to abort a child should be up to the women during the first three months of life,” Kennedy told an NBC reporter Sunday. “Once a child is viable, outside the womb, I think then the state has an interest in protecting the child,” he added.
Kennedy’s camp quickly backtracked after the comments went viral, saying that he did not understand the line of questioning. But that didn’t quell the anger from his fellow Democrats, many of whom have already come out in opposition against the insurgent candidate over past controversial remarks.
“The questions posed to him by NBC were clear; he wasn’t confused. A transcript has been released,” said Ameshia Cross, a Democratic strategist and commentator. “He was offered ample opportunity to clarify his statements, especially in light of the growing outcry for more access to abortion rights and women’s reproductive health, not less.”
“RFK Jr. has never tried to appeal to Democrats or the party’s primary voters,” Cross added. “His stance on abortion access runs an affront to not only the Democratic Party but the majority of Americans regardless of partisan stripe.”
Kennedy’s initial comment, which his campaign also blamed on the noisiness of the venue, was striking, but not totally out of step with other GOP-adjacent positions he’s taken since announcing his candidacy this spring. While his campaign later said that he believes “it is always the woman’s right to choose,” Democrats nonetheless sought to diminish Kennedy as out of step with the party’s voters on key issues, most especially around vaccines.
“Republicans can attempt to dress Kennedy up as a Democrat but it’s still just lipstick on a pig,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic operative and campaign veteran.
“RFK Jr.’s comments are further proof that he doesn’t represent the views of Democratic voters,” Starr Hopkins added. “An anti-vax, COVID-denying, anti-choice candidate like Kennedy should find himself right at home with his pals in the Republican Party.”
Democrats have firmly coalesced around an abortion-rights platform for the 2024 cycle after having success in the midterms following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Polling indicates that most voters support broad reproductive freedom and that banning abortion after three months or outright is less popular. Last week, the party and reproductive-rights advocates scored a major victory in Ohio, which former President Trump won in both 2016 and 2020, when voters rejected a ballot measure that would have made it more difficult to enshrine abortions rights into the state constitution.
While Biden’s position and the Democratic Party’s platform are in lockstep, Kennedy has been an outlier on a range of cultural topics. His double-digit polling status has afforded him a somewhat comfortable position in the primary, where he’s seized on voter discontent with the sitting president.
But his campaign has also drawn the ire of many establishment Democrats, who view his campaign bid as crippling Biden’s reelection effort. Many see his embrace of conspiracy theories and inconsistent policy views as hurtful to the big-picture effort to keep Republicans out of control in Washington.
“I’m shocked—SHOCKED—that a man who openly dabbles in anti-vaxx and antisemitic conspiracy theories would support a federal ban on abortion,” Charlotte Clymer, a writer and Democratic political strategist, told The Hill in a text message. “RFK, Jr. is about as much a Democrat as I am a NASCAR pit crew chief.”
Perhaps the strongest form of separation between his posture and other Democrats came after a prominent anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, positively credited his support for an abortion ban Sunday.
Kennedy’s comments also fueled speculation among critics that he could be angling for favor with Republicans in other areas, with some wondering about his broader motivations for seeking higher office.
“From this latest episode it certainly seems like he is more interested in trying to convince Republican candidates he would be willing to serve in their administration without pissing off anti-choice groups than appealing to any Democratic voters,” said one long term strategist who has been supportive of Biden’s presidency.
The source also challenged the assertion that Kennedy couldn’t make out the questions, which a reporter repeated multiple times for clarity, and likened the defense to a deflection tactic used by Trump.
“RFK Jr. is also quickly mastering the Trump move of straight-up lying about what he said or meant when we can all clearly read the transcript,” the Democratic strategist said. “He certainly didn’t mishear anything and has a long and straight-forward answer about supporting a national abortion ban.”
The abortion kerfuffle also brought to mind other positions in which the lawyer widely deviates from the rest of his party. He’s alienated many liberals by making controversial and disproven comments about COVID-19, vaccines and foreign policy. Such claims have hampered what some in the party say could have otherwise been a stronger challenge to Biden.
Throughout the cycle, Kennedy has most often been criticized for his skepticism of vaccines, with other inflammatory comments making momentary dents. But the latest comments and attempted retraction of an abortion ban has the potential to make a greater impact on his candidacy.
“We just watched Ohio voters upend attempts to fast-track restrictions. A federal abortion ban would put the lives of many women at risk. RFK Jr knows this, the data bears it out,” said Cross, the Democratic strategist. “But in his steadfast appeals to reach conservative voters, the conservative donors who prop his campaign and the MAGA crowd, he simply doesn’t care about women’s reproductive rights.”