WASHINGTON — Vivian Beckerle, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Mobile, Ala., had never heard of Robert Kennedy Jr. — well, not this Robert Kennedy Jr. — when he declared his intention to run as a Democrat in the special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"We didn't know who the heck he was," Beckerle said. "When he walked in the door and I saw him, I said, 'I'm going to guess you're not one of the Massachusetts Kennedys.'"
Not even close. For starters, he's African-American.
Despite being unknown to Democratic officials until a few months ago, Kennedy — who goes by the name "Bobby" — shot to the top of the seven-candidate Democratic field in a new poll commissioned by Birmingham TV station WBRC, one of the only surveys of the race.
With just two weeks to go before the August 15 primary, some Democrats worry Kennedy could win the nomination on a fluke, thanks to his name, recalling Alvin Greene's surprise victory in a South Carolina Democratic Senate primary seven years ago.
"There's suspicion that he's here to bust up the vote and help secure the race for the Republicans," said Beckerle.
The poll showed Kennedy with 49 percent of the vote, outpacing his closest competitor nearly two-to-one in a race that has been entirely overshadowed by the GOP primary, given the state's rightward slant.
"Really all this shows is you've got a guy with a famous name," said Doug Jones, Kennedy's closest competitor.
Jones is a former U.S. attorney appointed by Bill Clinton who has been involved in Alabama politics since he was president of the Young Democrats chapter in law school.
Alabama papers have dubbed Kennedy a "mystery candidate" and campaign finance reports show that, by the end of June, he hadn't hired any staff or spent any money on anything other than online fundraising processing fees.
But Kennedy — his full name is Robert Kennedy Jr. in case you were wondering if his middle initial were "F" — would like to clear a few things up.
First of all, he's named after his father, Robert Kennedy Sr., who was born before the other Kennedy family rose to prominence. Second, Alabama Democrats don't know him because he left his Mobile-area home at 18 to join the Navy and then worked for big multinational companies. Third, the Naval Academy graduate with an MBA from Duke University may be a political novice, but he's no dummy.
And, no, he's not a Republican plant. Yes, he's a gun-owning fiscal conservative who emphasizes "faith," "family," and "freedom" as the three key tenets of his campaign. But as an African-American whose parents were raised in the Jim Crow South, he wants an activist federal government to help even the playing field.
"I understand that my name will give me some points," he said. "But to suggest that my name in that particular poll gave me 49 points is disrespectful to the voters."
Anthony Terrell contributed reporting.