RFK Jr. sparks furor with possible Aaron Rodgers VP pick

2 split rfkjr rodgers GregNash AP

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s consideration of New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers as his running mate is sparking backlash and raising fresh scrutiny over the athlete’s past controversial comments.

Rodgers is one of a few candidates that the independent candidate’s campaign confirmed is on its shortlist for vice president ahead of an announcement set for later this month.

If chosen, Rodgers would be a high-profile name for Kennedy’s ticket as he tries to gain steam for his independent bid. But while strategists from both sides of the aisle said a pick like Rodgers may help Kennedy get more of the attention he desires for his candidacy, it could also plague him with controversy amid scrutiny over the future Pro Football Hall of Famer’s past statements on the Sandy Hook shooting and vaccines.

“Having a big splashy VP nominee celebrity is one way to get people to pay attention to you,” Democratic strategist Jared Leopold said. “As far as electoral effect, taking someone like Aaron Rodgers is a real wild card.”

Rodgers has spent nearly two decades in the NFL as one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He played for the Green Bay Packers for most of his career before being traded to the Jets last year.

But Rodgers in recent years has shared political views on several issues, especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the development of vaccines to address it.

The four-time NFL MVP faced widespread backlash in 2021 after he misled the public about his vaccination status. He said at a press conference that he was “immunized” but did not make clear that he did not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, instead using an alternative homeopathic treatment.

Rodgers argued in the aftermath that he was the victim of a “woke mob” and cancel culture and slammed the NFL’s protocols addressing the spread of the virus for taking a player’s vaccination status into consideration.

Rodgers also criticized his home state of California’s COVID-19 policies more broadly and spread misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines.

He has more recently found himself facing controversy following a CNN report that Rodgers shared conspiracy theories about the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Two people said Rodgers claimed the shooting was an inside government job and the media was helping to cover it up.

Rodgers responded to the report Thursday, saying that “what happened in Sandy Hook was an absolute tragedy.”

“I am not and have never been of the opinion that the events did not take place. Again, I hope that we learn from this and other tragedies to identify the signs that will allow us to prevent unnecessary loss of life,” he said in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Democrats have slammed the possible choice of Rodgers as Kennedy’s running mate, while noting that it makes sense, given Kennedy’s own past of anti-vaccine advocacy.

“It’s no surprise this is the shortlist considering the conspiracy theorist doing the choosing,” Democratic National Committee senior adviser Mary Beth Cahill said in a statement.

One other notable name on the shortlist is former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, an ex-wrestler and actor who won office as a third-party candidate.

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler brushed off Rodgers as a possible running mate, telling reporters, “Wisconsinites know from painful experience that Aaron Rodgers tends to choke when it matters most.” The comment is a reference to many playoff losses the Packers suffered during Rodgers’s tenure with the team.

But strategists warn that Rodgers could have a notable, if unclear, impact on the race — same as with Kennedy himself.

Leopold said Rodgers could appeal to voters who lean toward former President Trump.

“Football fans skew male, and football fans who still like Aaron Rodgers skew even further male, so there’s a real possibility that Aaron Rodgers would take away some Trump-sympathetic young men,” he said, adding that “it’s hard to say” who Rodgers’s selection would hurt more between Trump and President Biden.

Wisconsin-based Republican strategist Bill McCoshen agreed that Rodgers could appeal to NFL fans who consider themselves in Trump’s “MAGA movement.” He said Kennedy appears to be pulling support away from Biden a bit more than Trump currently, but it is close.

McCoshen said Rodgers, if chosen, could have a larger effect on the race in the critical swing state of Wisconsin than in other states; Rodgers spent 18 seasons playing for the Packers and is considered one of the greatest players in the franchise’s history.

The state was decided by less than 1 percentage point in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

McCoshen said the largest impact may come from the Green Bay media market, a swing area and one of the top markets in the country targeted for presidential races.

“Most national campaigns cycle after cycle will tell you it’s one of the top five markets in the country,” he said. “There’s an unbelievable amount of money that gets invested in the Green Bay market every cycle.”

But McCoshen added that Rodgers may be haunted by the past controversial remarks he has made.

“I think if he were to go down this path, he’d quickly find out that the bright lights of politics are actually hotter than the bright lights of the NFL, and it may not be to his liking,” he said.

Kennedy praised Rodgers in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, calling him “battle-tested” and a “critical thinker.”

Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist, emphasized that even a small amount of support that a hypothetical Kennedy-Rodgers ticket receives could make the difference in what will likely be a razor-thin 2024 race.

“While on the one hand we should laugh and scoff at the absurdity of this, we should also be really clear about the stakes,” he said.

He said he expects Democrats to go on offense to define who Kennedy is — and Rodgers, if he is chosen.

“Aaron Rodgers will be laid bare and exposed in ways unfathomable to even to people who watched him dissect the [Chicago] Bears defense,” Zepecki said.

In January, Rodgers faced the threat of a lawsuit from late-night host Jimmy Kimmel after he baselessly alleged Kimmel was “really hoping that list” of Jeffrey Epstein’s associates was not released.

Rodgers did not apologize after the released list showed Kimmel not named.

Kennedy’s plans to announce his running mate come as NBC reported that the Democratic National Committee is building a team to address third-party and independent candidates in 2024, focusing on communications, opposition research and legal challenges.

Supporters of Biden have argued that third-party challenges are likely only to act as a spoiler for the president and throw the election to Trump.

Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett, meanwhile, said Kennedy’s family legacy is helping propel him, and he could appeal to lesser-informed Democrats who are disillusioned with Biden. But he said Rodgers could more so enhance Kennedy’s appeal to voters on the right who are upset with pandemic-related restrictions during the Trump administration.

“There aren’t many Democrats that have ever dreamed of Aaron Rodgers becoming involved in their party. Yet some on the far, far fringes of society probably have an ear to some of the more outlandish things that he has said for many years now,” Bartlett said.

He pointed to other celebrities who have ventured into politics who had traits that were admired but struggled in an election when dealing with partisan politics, such as businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bartlett said Rodgers counts as an established voice with fame but still falls outside mainstream appeal.

“Everyone’s first thought is ‘What a Hail Mary,’” he said.

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