In Depth: How West Virginia plays a role in Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s presidential plans

CHARLESTON, WV (WOAY) – An environmental attorney, activist, and author running an independent presidential campaign made a stop in Charleston last weekend.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, launched his full-fledged independent campaign in October after previously running in the Democratic primary.

Three months later, that campaign brought him to West Virginia’s capitol to rally supporters and solicit the signatures he needs to make it onto the West Virginia ballot this fall.

In an interview with WOAY just before he took the stage, Kennedy laid out a sweeping vision for America’s health, economy, and environment.

“There’s no other candidate who is talking about solutions for rebuilding the middle class in this country or unwinding the military warfare state abroad,” he said. “I’m focusing on our veterans, particularly the issues of PTSD and health, and ending the chronic disease epidemic in this country. And these are all issues that affect the American middle class.”

A poll by Reuters/Ipsos shows Kennedy polling with 8% support. His campaign cites a Quinnipiac poll that shows him having higher support among independents than Trump or Biden.

Kennedy speaking to WOAY before he took the stage in Charleston. 


Kennedy’s connection to West Virginia goes back over 50 years. He remembers his family’s campaigning in the state on behalf of his uncle, John F. Kennedy, in the 1960 presidential primary.

“When I was a little boy, my father and mother disappeared to West Virginia for about a six-week period. They campaigned for my uncle,” Kennedy said. “My family basically migrated into this state. And, you know, they claim to have shaken the hands of almost everybody in the state of West Virginia at that time.”

Those efforts paid off. West Virginia played a pivotal role in the 1960 primary and helped the man now known as JFK gain the Democratic nomination before eventually beating Richard Nixon, who was running for President for the first time.

Even after the primary ended, Kennedy said his family maintained its relationship with West Virginia. In particular, his father was worried about poverty in the state. He said he shares that concern.

“He would visit eastern Kentucky and West Virginia on many occasions to talk about the issues and work on the issues of education, of nutrition, of poverty,” Kennedy said. “My father used to say West Virginia should be the richest state in the country because of the resources that are under the ground. But it’s usually between the poorest and fourth poorest state in America.”

“Those [issues] are of deep interest to me. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in this state working on those issues, and I’ll continue to do that as president. It’ll be a priority.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kennedy, in foreground left, is greeted by admirers as he arrives at Kanawha Airport in Charleston, W. Va., September 19, 1960. Kennedy is scheduled to speak at a rally at the Civic Center. (AP Photo)
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kennedy, in foreground left, is greeted by admirers as he arrives at Kanawha Airport in Charleston, W. Va., September 19, 1960. Kennedy is scheduled to speak at a rally at the Civic Center. (AP Photo)


A main focus of the Kennedy campaign is a widespread affliction of sickness that he believes is sweeping the United States, an illness that he says has hit West Virginia harder than any other state.

“This pandemic of chronic disease, neurological disease, autoimmune diseases, allergic disease and obesity, which has struck our country worse than any other country in the world, has hit West Virginia the worst of any state in our country,” Kennedy said. “West Virginia has the most contaminated water in the country.”

“When my uncle was president, six percent of the people in our country had chronic disease. Today, sixty percent do.”

Kennedy said that contaminants in food, water, and pharmaceuticals are the root cause of this widespread disease.

“We know it’s coming from environmental exposures. Genes don’t cause epidemics. We know that there’s a narrow number of those environmental exposures like PFOAS. I’ve litigated against a plant on behalf of 10,000 families here in this state for PFOAS, for forever chemicals, for contaminating large amounts of state,” he said. “Those companies should be responsible, and I will hold them responsible.”


Kennedy speaking to the crowd gathered in the Charleston Civic Center

Kennedy believes that the American middle class is in a state of decay. He said the coal industry did not bring long-term, sustainable wealth to most West Virginians. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts are far-reaching.

“A long-term concern of mine was that coal should not be the only economic activity in the state. A lot of that money went to Wall Street,” Kennedy said. “A lot of the landscapes in this state have been destroyed by mountaintop removal mining.”

In the wake of the coal industry shrinking, Kennedy says that job creation and growth is a significant problem facing the state.

“Here in West Virginia, the major concern is jobs. People are leaving this state faster than any other state,” Kennedy said. “We need to find ways to attract business to the state. And we need to start with small business by making loans available to small business people.  About 52% of the economy in our country is small business, and it creates 75% of the jobs. West Virginia’s future is going to be in small business. That’s what I will focus on in the state, ” Kennedy said.

As for West Virginia’s abundant natural resources, Kennedy says they are assets that can be protected without sacrificing the state’s economy.

“You don’t have to choose between good economic prosperity and good environmental policy there. They’re always identical. If we want to measure the economy, we ought to measure it based upon how it produces jobs and the dignity of jobs over the generations,” Kennedy said.

He believes it is important not to be seduced by short-term economic gains earned by exploiting the environment. He said the long-term consequences are not worth it.

“If, on the other hand, we want to treat states like West Virginia as if they’re business liquidation and convert the natural resources to cash as quickly as possible for a few years of pollution-based prosperity, we can generate the illusion of a prosperous economy and an instantaneous cash flow. And we can make a few people billionaires by impoverishing the rest of us,” he said. “Our children are going to pay for our joyride and they’re going to pay for it with denuded landscapes, poor health, and contamination that is going to amplify over time.”

Kennedy said that access to affordable housing is quickly becoming a problem. He wants to limit the access that big investors have to purchasing homes.


Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a campaign event, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. Kennedy was soliciting signatures in support of getting his name on the ballot for the 2024 general election. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Like most states, West Virginia’s process for independent candidates is more complicated than simply filing out paperwork.

According to state law, any independent candidate running for president must collect a total number of signatures equal to 1% of the votes cast in the last presidential election.

This year, that number is 7,947, roughly the population of Oak Hill.

Candidates who are the nominees of qualified presidential candidates do not need to follow that step.

The law is similar to that of other states, and the Kennedy campaign is exploring alternatives. His campaign has created the “We the People” party, which lowers the threshold of signatures needed in some states.

Meanwhile, the campaign is considering additional partnerships to get Kennedy on the ballot nationwide.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Kennedy confirmed that he is “looking at” a run under the umbrella of the Libertarian Party, saying his campaign’s relationship with the Libertarian party is “really good.”

He added that he is “comfortable” with the Libertarian Party’s values.

The Libertarian party successfully gained access to the ballot in 2016 and 2020.

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