How Kanye West made RFK Jr.’s campaign in Colorado harder

Election 2024 Kennedy
Eric Gay/AP
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to supporters during a campaign stop, Monday, May 13, 2024, in Austin, Texas.

In 2020, the rapper Kanye West’s name appeared on Colorado’s presidential election ballots. Getting there didn’t cost him very much — his campaign only needed $1,000 and nine signatures from voters to earn a slot as an independent candidate on millions of ballots.

This year, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is hoping to follow a similar path, appearing as an independent candidate in as many states as possible. But it’s going to take Kennedy a lot more effort to put his name in front of Colorado voters.

Instead of needing just a handful of signatures, as the controversial rapper did, Kennedy will need to submit 12,000 valid signatures gathered from across the state. That’s because state lawmakers changed the law soon after the last presidential election.

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat who co-sponsored the 2021 election law, explained: “My recollection was that there were enough people who were like ‘That seems odd’ in the aftermath of Kanye getting added onto the ballot, that we were like ‘We should address that.’”

The 2021 law removed the easy-access option for independent candidates in Colorado, amid numerous other changes.

But RFK Jr.’s campaign isn’t too worried about the change. They will start gathering those 12,000 signatures in the coming days, beginning with a campaign visit by Kennedy himself to Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace on Sunday.

Kennedy initially launched his presidential campaign as a Democrat last year but switched to independent in October. Instead of competing in the primaries to win the Democratic nomination, he’ll have to take an alternate route onto general election ballots.

As of this week, the campaign’s drive to get on the ballot nationally was “defying the odds,” as Politico reported. In Texas, the campaign said it had submitted about 250,000 signatures, more than double the requirement of about 113,000. Campaigns always aim to collect more signatures than they need, since many will be ruled invalid).

So far, RFK Jr. has secured a place on the ballot in seven states, including Texas and California, and has wrapped up signature gathering in another eight, according to spokesman Del Bigtree. Kennedy aims to be on the ballot in all 50 states by November.

Typically, independent candidates “don't attract a whole lot of attention. Usually, they don't have a lot of money or a lot of or a lot of backers,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

It will be different with Kennedy, who has raised tens of millions, including a recent $8 million infusion from his running mate.

“We're gonna see a lot more people out there (collecting signatures), to an extent that we probably haven't seen since Ross Perot ran in 1992, when he was trying to get on all 50 states’ ballots,” Masket said.

Kennedy has portrayed himself as an independent alternative with a mix of anti-establishment messages — against vaccination, against corporations and pollution, against funding for foreign wars including the defense of Ukraine, as well as entertaining unfounded scientific theories, like the idea that a common herbicide causes gender dysphoria. Kennedy will focus part of his Aurora event on environmentalism and the middle class, Bigtree said.

“Our goal, everywhere, is to win the election,” Bigtree said. “It's time to face the issues in America together as a team.”

Evergreen resident Giselle Massi is a former Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and President Joe Biden in 2020. Now, she’s organizing a volunteer group for Kennedy, though she said she hasn’t decided whether to vote for him. She said she and other local supporters were fueled by anger over public health orders during the pandemic, from Trump and Biden alike. 

“It's because they both shut down the government, ruined the economy, and did censorship with all the medical community,” she said. “And Kennedy said our civil rights were just trashed.”

She added that many in her group had voted for Biden with the idea that he’d be a one-term “bridge” president. There was widespread speculation and reporting that Biden might bow out after this term, and he once referred to himself as “a bridge.” But Biden rejected the idea of a one-term pledge.

“There was a massive disappointment that he's chosen to run again,” Massi said. 

Polling has found a wide range of support for Kennedy this year, topping out at around 20 percent in some polls, The  New York Times reported. Those polls found especially strong Kennedy support among voters who had switched from Democrats to Trump — and who now may move on to Kennedy. That could hurt Trump but also make it harder for the president to gain momentum, The Times argued.

“Mr. Kennedy may be winning over voters whom Mr. Biden may need in order to win,” wrote Nate Cohn.

Andrew Kenney / CPR News
Supporters of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. gathered on an overpass above Interstate 70 in Evergreen on May 10, 2024, ahead of an effort to gather signatures to put him on Colorado’s presidential election ballot.

RFK’s candidacy draws concern from some Colorado Democrats, who fear he could affect the national election by drawing voters away from Biden.

“We take nothing for granted. And so we'll be making a strong case for President Biden's reelection against Donald Trump and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and any other far-right candidate that emerges to try and frame themselves as some sort of independent choice,” said Shad Murib, chair of the state Democratic Party. 

Murib criticized Kennedy for having financial backing from at least one Republican mega-donor.

“When you're funded by the same people funding Donald Trump's campaign, or aligning yourselves with far-right parties in California, I don't think you get to claim to be any sort of environmentalist or alternative to Biden,” Murib said. He was referring to Kennedy’s acceptance of the American Independent Party’s nomination to get on the ballot in California. (Kennedy has claimed the group was recently “reborn” so that it does not represent “bigotry and hatred.”)

Kennedy has also drawn in new, small-dollar donors who apparently “have been turned off by what major parties have been offering,” Politico reported. 

Republicans are also looking at Kennedy as a threat since he appears to be attracting potential Trump voters too.

So far, Kennedy is the only independent candidate who has expressed interest in qualifying for the Colorado ballot, according to state officials, although a long list of minor-party candidates may also appear.

In 2020, Colorado voters found 23 different presidential candidates on their ballot, including West, who is now known as Ye. Apart from the major party nominees, the most votes went to the Libertarian nominee, Jo Jorgensen — but she took only 1.6 percent of the vote, not enough to affect Biden’s crushing victory in the state.

“It's unlikely Kennedy would get enough votes to actually tip that in Trump's favor. It's hard to imagine that happening this year,” said Masket, of DU. “It's more likely to have an effect in a swing state like Michigan or Wisconsin or Arizona”.

For his Sunday stop in Aurora, Kennedy’s campaign is also offering a private reception with the candidate for those giving at least $250. 

The event’s MC will be Jessica Sutta of the 2000s-era pop group The Pussycat Dolls. Meanwhile, the liberal group ProgressNow is planning a counter-protest themed around the parasitic worm that, more than a decade ago, “got into my brain and ate a portion of it” as Kennedy reportedly described it in 2012.

Kennedy’s campaign must submit its petitions by July 11. Given the campaign’s success gathering much larger numbers of signatures in other states, Bigtree said the campaign is confident — although it’s looking out for legal challenges from both Democrats and Republicans.