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Cash crunch squeezes Kennedy amid costly fight for ballot spots

RACHEL WOOLF / NEW YORK TIMES / MAY 19
                                Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on stage at a campaign rally in Aurora, Colo., in May. Kennedy’s campaign has been spending heavily as it tries to gain access to state ballots and fights legal challenges brought by opponents, including the Democratic National Committee.
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RACHEL WOOLF / NEW YORK TIMES / MAY 19

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on stage at a campaign rally in Aurora, Colo., in May. Kennedy’s campaign has been spending heavily as it tries to gain access to state ballots and fights legal challenges brought by opponents, including the Democratic National Committee.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s independent presidential campaign is spending heavily, amassing steep debts and resorting to layoffs as it becomes almost singularly focused on the costly effort of placing his name on state ballots.

The troubles, laid bare in federal filings and interviews with nine people with knowledge of the campaign’s activities, have left little money for events and other traditional campaign priorities, leading to a growing sense of alarm among some staff members and longtime supporters. Fundraising has slowed, and the campaign has become reliant on Kennedy’s wealthy running mate, Nicole Shanahan, who last month put $2.5 million more into their campaign.

As the campaign struggles, allies of Kennedy have been quietly raising money into a new organization to support legal challenges to ballot access, according to records and interviews, effectively creating a separate financing operation.

The ballot litigation group — called the Ballot Freedom Fund and set up in May in Delaware by a lawyer with ties to Kennedy’s campaign — could ease the financial pressure on the campaign, which otherwise would have to foot legal bills itself. The group, a tax-exempt political organization, can raise unlimited amounts of money but is not allowed to coordinate with the campaign.

The group’s formation underscores the extent to which the Kennedy campaign’s leaders increasingly see ballot access not just as necessary for his viability as a candidate, but as a rallying cry.

Five of the people who spoke with The New York Times were former campaign employees, including two who recently lost their jobs and said they were told it was because of financial shortfalls. All insisted on anonymity, with some citing nondisclosure agreements. Many said they still supported Kennedy, and were speaking partly out of concern that his campaign is foundering.

A spokesperson for the campaign declined to comment. On Thursday, the campaign sent out an email detailing its ballot-access efforts, including legal challenges in several states.

“The campaign’s aggressive ballot access operation has surpassed all its milestones to ensure the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket is on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” the email said. “The ballot access operation is fully funded with more than $15 million raised.”

It will not be clear how much the Ballot Freedom Fund has collected or spent until it lists donors and expenditures in a filing to the IRS this month.

One person briefed on the campaign’s operations said that as of early June, campaign officials had been told that the new fund had raised at least $500,000, with another million-dollar donor lined up.

The Kennedy campaign’s state-by-state scramble to get on ballots is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that requires gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures and submitting petitions to local officials. Kennedy has so far officially obtained ballot access in seven states, including Michigan, a top battleground.

The campaign has paid its primary ballot access firm, Accelevate 2020, $5.4 million this year, as of the end of May.

The Ballot Freedom Fund lists a simple mission on a federal tax filing from May: “To create a fair and simple electoral system that fosters more choices and true freedom in America.” There is no reference to Kennedy.

But several of the people knowledgeable about the group said it was created by Kennedy’s allies principally to fight legal challenges by his opponents, including the Democratic National Committee.

The fund was incorporated by Andrew D. Hurd, a Colorado lawyer, according to Delaware records. Hurd is married to Robyn Ross, a lawyer for the Kennedy campaign.

The federal tax filing from May lists two directors of the fund: Hurd and Michael Baum, a partner at the Los Angeles law firm Wisner Baum who has for years been a close professional ally of Kennedy.

In an email, Hurd said: “Ballot Freedom Fund was established to finance offensive and defensive ballot access litigation for independent candidates. It may engage with individual campaigns on questions of ballot access but does not coordinate with any campaign regarding expenditures that would influence a federal election.”

The Kennedy campaign is expected to continue its own ballot-access efforts, focused primarily on gathering signatures and submitting petitions while the fund deals with legal expenses. The campaign says on its website that it is still hiring state directors “in all 50 states” to lead these efforts.

The Democratic Party and its allies, fearing that Kennedy could peel away critical votes from President Joe Biden, have said they are closely monitoring Kennedy’s ballot petitions. The DNC has already quietly backed or coordinated court challenges to Kennedy’s ballot access efforts in at least three states — Hawaii, New York and North Carolina — according to two people briefed on the challenges.

Kennedy’s campaign, for its part, has filed federal lawsuits in at least four states, most recently in Nevada and New York, challenging restrictions on ballot access.

The creation of the Ballot Freedom Fund is the latest example of a growing trend of federal campaigns offloading expenses to outside organizations — groups that can take checks of unlimited size but are legally banned from direct coordination with a campaign.

The focus on ballot access comes as the campaign has slashed spending on events and other typical campaign priorities in the months before an election. Several top staff members in charge of events were laid off in recent weeks. The campaign’s public calendar shows only one in-person event, a sailing trip with Kennedy in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, which its website bills as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

Jeffrey Rose, a hypnotherapist and a longtime friend of Kennedy’s who has been raising money for the campaign, said he saw the lack of high-dollar fundraising events as perhaps a positive sign that there was no financial crunch. “If they were more desperate, they’d probably be doing more fundraisers,” he said, adding that he was finding it relatively easy to raise money now.

Small-dollar fundraising has dropped by about a third since its peak in March, according to campaign filings. Independent and third-party candidates tend to lose momentum as a general election nears, and the focus has turned to former President Donald Trump and Biden.

Amaryllis Fox, Kennedy’s campaign manager and his daughter-in-law, said in an interview last week with NPR that his fundraising was slowing because of “the economic struggles of many of our supporters.”

Kennedy’s campaign had $6.5 million on hand as of May 31, not taking into account $2.7 million in debts owed to his security team, the filings show. The campaign raised just $2.6 million in May, and spent $6.3 million, including more than $2.8 million to Accelevate 2020, its ballot access firm.

Five people, including two who were let go by the campaign in recent weeks, said they had been told directly by senior campaign officials and consultants that the campaign was running out of money for everything except ballot access. One person, who insisted on anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement, said he had been told that the campaign, as of mid-June, was down to $600,000, after setting aside more than $5 million for unpaid bills.

What distinguishes Kennedy’s campaign from others is its access to someone who can instantly inject millions of dollars into it: Shanahan, a Silicon Valley investor and lawyer who was previously married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

She joined the ticket in late March, providing a much-needed source of cash. Of the $18.5 million the campaign raised in March, April and May, more than half came from Shanahan — $2 million in March and $8 million in April. She gave barely any money to the campaign in May.

Shanahan, asked in a rare television interview last month whether she would donate more to the campaign, replied, “Yeah, my goal is to make sure we are on the ballots.”

Shanahan last month made a major donation to support Kennedy, according to three people briefed on the matter. One of those people, with direct knowledge of the donation, said she gave $2.5 million in June directly to the campaign, not to the Ballot Freedom Fund.

The campaign originally hired an experienced Democratic fundraiser, Sheila Creal, to oversee the creation of a 50-person National Finance Committee, with each one committed to bundling at least $100,000 for the campaign, but it is unclear if it is active. Some people who said they joined now say they did not end up doing anything substantive. Creal has since left the campaign, which has not released the list of these bundlers.

Kennedy is left trying to bolster his small-dollar fundraising, going so far as to begin placing a 90-second robocall to voters for financial support.

“Press 1 and you’ll be transferred to a live staffer who’s standing by to talk to you,” Kennedy says.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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