Month after announcement, RFK Jr.'s running mate, Nicole Shanahan, remains in the shadows

Shanahan hasn't done any in-person, open-press events but will launch a podcast.

April 26, 2024, 3:51 PM

When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. unveiled California lawyer Nicole Shanahan as his running mate in late March, it seemed to trigger the start of a new and exciting phase of his long shot independent presidential bid: "Kennedy '24" signs suddenly made room for a second name, which water bottles and teddy bears sold on the campaign's website within minutes of the Oakland announcement showcased.

Yet weeks later, the cadence of Kennedy's campaign feels similar to his pre-Shanahan days, in large part because his running mate -- the young, largely unknown sidekick who might have helped shape the image of a presidential candidate prone to a damaging loop of conspiratorial rhetoric -- has been almost completely absent on the campaign trail.

That will change somewhat with the launch of a podcast Shanahan has been taping, which will "spotlight everyday Americans and their stories and cover issues important to [Shanahan] and [Kennedy]," according to someone familiar with Shanahan's activities. The podcast, the details of which were first obtained by ABC News, is scheduled to launch in the coming days.

Still, she has not appeared at any of the public, in-person, open-press campaign events, appearing instead on several podcasts discussing issues such as coronavirus lockdowns, free speech, fertility and the body's healing.

She is scheduled to appear at a "Night of Laughter" in Nashville, Tennessee, May 15, an open-press event where she and Kennedy will be joined by several comedians to raise money for the campaign.

"Right now, she's kind of, I think, getting into the race the same way I did -- by doing a lot of podcasts and doing emergence events," Kennedy told reporters in Dallas on Wednesday.

"She spent three or four days at the border learning that issue," he added, referencing her trip to Yuma, Arizona, earlier this month, which was closed to the press.

PHOTO: Independent vice presidential candidate Nicole Shanahan speaks during a campaign event to announce Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. pick for a running mate, March 26, 2024, in Oakland, Calif.
Independent vice presidential candidate Nicole Shanahan speaks during a campaign event to announce Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. pick for a running mate, March 26, 2024, in Oakland, Calif.
Thos Robinson/Getty Images

Still, her exact role in the campaign is somewhat a mystery. In a podcast interview with Stanford professor Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Shanahan claimed that her days have "definitely evolved" since the announcement. But she didn't say exactly how, which triggered critics to question what exactly Shanahan's role in the campaign is.

Opponents have painted Shanahan, a wealthy Silicon Valley lawyer and a longtime Democratic donor, as simply an open checkbook for Kennedy's campaign, which has spent nearly as much as it raised -- $33 million raised compared to $27 million spent -- over recent months, according to federal financial disclosures.

Unlike regular donors, candidates can contribute however much they want to their own campaigns.

A significant portion of Kennedy's expenses go toward paying for security and the unique challenge of obtaining ballot access in each state, according to federal financial disclosures. In fact, the campaign's top two expenses in the month of March were to a private security firm and a petition-gathering vendor, federal financial disclosures show.

"It's clear that she was chosen for two reasons: she was the last woman standing after a litany of unqualified prospects said no. And she has the money to infuse his campaign with badly needed cash as he continues to work to be a spoiler for Donald Trump," Matt Corridoni, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, told ABC News.

Many Democrats have spoken out against the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket, saying it is destined to siphon votes from President Joe Biden and deliver the White House to former President Donald Trump.

Kennedy effectively denied these claims in a NewsNation interview in March -- when Shanahan's name was floated in media reports as the possible pick. At the time, Shanahan had contributed the maximum amount to the campaign and millions more to a pro-Kennedy super PAC.

"I would never choose a vice presidential candidate based on how much money that they have," Kennedy told NewsNation.

Nevertheless, one of Shanahan's first acts as a candidate appears to have been to pump $2 million into the campaign, according to its latest financial filing. Her donation was dated one day after the announcement that she would be Kennedy's running mate.

Shanahan, 38, who earned a law degree from Stanford University, has helped found multiple organizations focused on "human and planetary health," as she explained to ABC News in a March interview.

At the event announcing her as running mate, Shanahan said she began to support Kennedy after a friend encouraged her to listen to an interview with him.

"And then I listened to another one, and then another one, and I recognized that the person who I was seeing in these interviews was the exact opposite of the media slander of his character," she said.

When pressed on her absence from the trail on Meghan McCain's podcast, Link Lauren, a former senior campaign aide who worked closely with Shanahan, told McCain that Shanahan was "heavily involved" in the campaign's efforts to thwart multiple ballot access hurdles "behind the scenes." (Lauren has since stepped away from the campaign.) Still, when the campaign hosted an event in Iowa in an effort to get on the state's ballot shortly after the interview, Shanahan was nowhere to be seen.

Speaking to a group of reporters after that event, Kennedy attributed Shanahan's absence to a scheduling conflict with childcare, and added he talks to Shanahan at least twice a day, stressing they are a "unified front."

"I'm very proud of her, I'm very proud of what she's doing," Kennedy said. "I talk to Nicole probably two, three times a day and I'm very proud of the stuff she's been doing and I look forward to appearing with her in places."

On her trip to Yuma, Shanahan came "prepared" with "pages of questions," said Shara Whitehead, president of the Yuma Community Food Bank, which hosted Shanahan as part of a roundtable with the leaders of several nonprofits in the area.

"The thing that resonated most, I think, was the fact that she sees the need to secure the border to control immigration, and that immigration needs to be fixed," Whitehead told ABC News, adding that Shanahan seemed "emotional" about the hardships families who visit the food bank face.

On Monday, Shanahan made her first appearance in front of the press as part of an online Earth Day panel -- albeit virtually. Reporters were unable to ask questions, and Shanahan and Kennedy appeared to be in two separate locations.

And it's unclear where and when the two will appear in person, in front of voters, next.

"I think you'll see a lot of her soon," Kennedy offered in Dallas.

The campaign's press office did not respond to a detailed list of questions about Shanahan's activities and whether she would contribute more of her own money to the effort.

Where she has been quite active, however, is on social media, posting frequently on X.

Earlier this month, Shanahan took to X to blast Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who shared a letter with CBS News calling on her to step down because he said her support of Kennedy would help Trump win the election. Khanna had not yet shared that letter with Shanahan.

".@RoKhanna you have my phone number and could have called instead of going to the press. This is performative.," Shanahan claimed in a post on X.

Supporters' tepid reception of Shanahan

Her absence could exacerbate a vulnerability with Kennedy's heterogeneous supporter base, which seem split on Shanahan. On online forums, skeptics seem worried she's either too liberal or that they don't seem to know where she stands on a host of issues.

Kennedy boasts a sizable online following, with many of his most ardent followers congregating on the candidate's Reddit forum. In fact, r/RFKJrForPresident boasts more than 7,000 users, and Reddit ranks the group within the top 8% of its community by size.

A popular Kennedy sub-Reddit forum illustrates the back-and-forth on Shanahan in great detail: One busy thread, for example, has a supporter wondering if Shanahan turns off Kennedy's more conservative followers. On another thread, a supporter said Shanahan's relatively unknown background and record are a major risk, and will do little to persuade those on the fence to back Kennedy.

PHOTO: Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. announces his running mate Nicole Shanahan in Oakland, Calif., March 26, 2024.
Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. announces his running mate Nicole Shanahan in Oakland, Calif., March 26, 2024.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

"We don't know how good of a debater she is. We don't know if she'll have pull and influence in Washington to get things done. And god forbid, if something happens to Bobby, she's president...... I have no doubt she's a smart woman. But that gives no indication of how she'll do politically," the user writes, adding "I don't feel good about voting for someone I don't know anything about at all."

Another user said they wished Kennedy had gone another direction.

"I wish he would have picked someone more high profile to elevate the ticket, especially because what the tickets needs now more than anything is elevating as opposed to policy wonks," the user said.

Even still, not all hope is lost for Shanahan -- there's a windfall of support for her on online forums as well. While ranging from reluctance to emphatic support, many encourage the skeptics to keep an open mind.

"People change," one user said. "Voters should listen to Shanahan speak to learn about her views and why she holds them."

The same user said they shed tears of hope following Shanahan's first speech.

"I'm a 56-year old oligarchy-hating, 30+ year independent voting, curmudgeonly guy who has also cried when hearing Bobby speak," wrote the user. "It was the first time in my life I ever cried listening to a politician. Today I heard Nicole speak, and now there are two politicians in my lifetime who've brought me to tears."