Surprise Tactics and Legal Threats: Inside R.F.K. Jr.’s Ballot Access Fight

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As Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s independent presidential campaign mounts a bruising state-by-state battle for ballot access, he has often credited enthusiastic volunteers and grass-roots backers with driving the effort.

In fact, the operation has become increasingly reliant on consultants and paid petitioners whose signature-gathering work has yielded mixed results and raised questions of impropriety, even among Mr. Kennedy’s fans. In order to get Mr. Kennedy on the ballot in all 50 states, as is his goal, his campaign has deployed a multipart strategy: aggressive legal action, shrewd political alliances and surprise filing tactics meant to slow or prevent challenges.

In most states, Mr. Kennedy, 70, an environmental lawyer and heir to an American political dynasty, must produce thousands of signatures, under rules that are varied, intricate and confusing at times even to the local officials administering elections. The effort has already cost his campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a supporting super PAC at least $2.4 million more, federal campaign finance records show. It has involved a number of professionals who specialize in getting people on the ground with clipboards and petitions, and helping candidates navigate the complicated process. Their success is what will make or break Mr. Kennedy’s campaign.

This month, Mr. Kennedy got on the ballot in Michigan, a key presidential battleground, by securing the nomination of a minor political party. He will soon officially be on the ballot in Hawaii, having overcome a challenge from the local Democratic Party. As of Sunday, the campaign says it has gathered enough signatures to submit petitions in six other states, including New Hampshire, Nevada and North Carolina, with more expected to be announced this week.

“Ballot access is existential for any campaign. It is also essential for a healthy and prosperous democracy,” said Stefanie Spear, a spokeswoman for the campaign. “The Kennedy-Shanahan ticket will be on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We have the field teams, volunteers, legal teams, paid circulators, supporters and strategists ready to get the job done.”

It is unclear whether Mr. Kennedy’s presence on the ballot poses a greater electoral threat to President Biden or former President Donald J. Trump. Polls suggest he could draw votes from both major-party candidates in the general election. But the Democratic Party is more openly concerned with Mr. Kennedy’s candidacy, and has dedicated national legal and public-relations teams to tempering his influence.

According to Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, the Democrats’ efforts have included old-fashioned political subterfuge.

Along with regularly accusing the Democratic National Committee and Democratic secretaries of state of conspiring against Mr. Kennedy, some of Mr. Kennedy’s advisers say the party and its allies have sought to impede the campaign’s hiring by offering prospective workers large sums that come with noncompete agreements, which would effectively prevent them from aiding Mr. Kennedy.

The Democratic Party denied any such efforts.

“RFK Jr. has never met a conspiracy theory he doesn’t like and clearly that extends to his bizarre fantasies about the D.N.C. — none of which are rooted in reality,” said Lis Smith, a strategist for the D.N.C. focused on third parties.

At a rally in Iowa this month, Mr. Kennedy told the crowd that the “D.N.C.’s law firm” had tried to hire away his campaign’s ballot access lawyer by offering him $1 million a year. (Mr. Kennedy was referring to Paul A. Rossi, according to a Kennedy campaign official. But Mr. Rossi said the offer, from a firm he declined to name, was not an effort to sideline him — the timing just didn’t work out.)

Mr. Rossi, whose law practice has focused on federal lawsuits seeking to block the enforcement of state and local limits on petition circulation and signature gathering, has played a key role in devising Mr. Kennedy’s state-by-state strategy. He works closely with Trent Pool, a petition circulator in Texas whose firm, Accelevate 2020, is a paid consultant to the campaign, and with the campaign’s ballot access director, Nicholas Brana.

Mr. Rossi’s tactics initially rubbed at least one eventual ally the wrong way. Earlier this year, when the campaign was seeking the nomination of the Natural Law Party of Michigan — which already had access to the state’s ballot — Mr. Rossi reached out to the party’s chair, Doug Dern, with orders.

“‘Do this, do this, do this,’” Mr. Dern said. “He seemed really pushy, like he was barking out orders to me. I just emailed him back and said, ‘Who the hell are you?’”

But the pair smoothed things over — in an interview, Mr. Rossi expressed admiration for Mr. Dern — allowing Mr. Kennedy to get on the ballot. The campaign could make similar alliances in other states to get on minor-party ballot lines.

The campaign is also purposefully delaying its filings to election officials. Mr. Kennedy’s operation plans to gather the required signatures in a given state, but hold off on filing the actual ballot petition until just before the deadline, with the aim of giving the Democratic Party less time to challenge the filings.

“The D.N.C. knows this is coming,” Ms. Spear said, “and we would be remiss to give them more time to challenge our ballot access.”

In an interview, Mr. Rossi underscored the importance of their legal strategy. His team pre-emptively filed three lawsuits for Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, challenging ballot access and signature collection rules in Idaho, Utah and Maine. He said he was planning a challenge in New York State, where the campaign this month has been gathering signatures ahead of a May 28 deadline.

“Our strategy is to knock out as many ballot access restrictions across the country as possible,” Mr. Rossi said. He called it a “broader attack” to help future candidates as well as Mr. Kennedy.

In Utah, for example, Mr. Rossi’s legal efforts continue even though the campaign has already secured ballot access. The lawsuit there challenges disclosure requirements for paid signature gatherers, among other rules.

In Nevada, another critical swing state, Mr. Rossi said he planned to pursue legal action after it emerged last month that the petition the campaign submitted for ballot access in the state, including more than 15,000 signatures, did not include a vice-presidential candidate and was therefore most likely invalid under state law. The rule, which has been in place for years, was conveyed to candidates in an early March memo, but a staff member at the state elections office did not explain it explicitly in email correspondence with the campaign, records show.

In a March 25 statement, Mr. Rossi blamed the “D.N.C. Goon Squad and their lackeys in the Nevada secretary of state’s office,” saying, inaccurately, that they had “outright invented a new requirement for the petition.”

The secretary of state responded that the staff member’s “inaccurate guidance” was a simple error. “In no way was the initial error or subsequent statutory guidance made with intent to benefit or harm any political party or candidate for office.”

Mr. Rossi and Mr. Pool have been instrumental in steering the campaign away from the volunteer signature gatherers whose grass-roots support Mr. Kennedy has played up, outsourcing the work to professionals.

Some of Mr. Kennedy’s early supporters say they have felt sidelined by the influx of paid consultants, adding that the national ballot access team has created an adversarial relationship with Mr. Kennedy’s longtime backers from his decades of work with anti-vaccine and environmental groups.

The divide between volunteers and paid contractors created friction in Hawaii, for example, after Mr. Rossi took over the drafting of bylaws for a new political party formed to get Mr. Kennedy on the ballot there, according to people involved in the effort, boxing out the original volunteers.

Mr. Rossi praised the volunteer efforts, but said that bulletproof applications are the most important thing: “It has to be supplemented by professionals.”

Petitioning can also be expensive. Petitioners may be paid by the signature or by the hour, depending on the state. A listing posted last week on Craigslist for Albany, N.Y., lists a salary of $40 an hour for “self-confident, enthusiastic individuals to canvas the local area and gather signatures” to get Mr. Kennedy on New York’s ballot.

Between November and the end of March, the Kennedy campaign paid Accelevate 2020 $389,000 for “campaign consulting,” records show, including a $300,000 payment last month.

Mr. Rossi has not yet filed an invoice with the campaign, he said.

“The only way to get rid of ballot access restrictions is to litigate them,” Mr. Rossi said. “It is time-consuming, costly and piecemeal.”



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