The prospect of a 2016 battle royal between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush produces worried shudders over dynastic domination of our politics. But those concerned with the outsized role of family connection in launching careers and candidacies need not wait for two years to see the process in action: in a disproportionate number of key races for the US Senate in 2014, Democrats are relying on second-generation nominees with familiar names that make them sound more moderate, while less conventionally liberal and urban, than their positions and records would otherwise indicate.
In Arkansas, Obama loyalist Mark Pryor would be considered political dead meat in a state Romney carried by 24 points were it not for the enduring popularity of his centrist father, former governor and three-term US Senator David Pryor.
In Georgia, Democratic nominee (and first-time candidate) Michelle Nunn would stand no chance at all of picking up an open Senate seat for her party were it not for association with her father, outspoken defense hawk Sam Nunn, who served as Georgia’s “beyond partisanship” Senate representative for 25 years.
Senator Mark Begich, running for his second term in Alaska (one of the most Republican states in the union), constantly invokes the memory of his father, Nick Begich, who died in a plane crash in 1972 while serving as the single House representative of the Last Frontier.
Embattled Senator Mary Landrieu in Louisiana prominently features her far more popular father, long-time New Orleans Mayor (and one-time Carter cabinet member) Moon Landrieu, in her television advertising.
Similarly, Alison Lundergan Grimes, 35-year-old challenger to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, gains local credibility as the daughter of a former Democratic Chair and Member of the Kentucky legislature.
Finally, Senator Mark Udall seeks a second term in Colorado as the proud progeny of the folksy long-time Congressman (and one-time presidential candidate) Mo Udall of Arizona.
All of these races count as toss ups in November and Democratic appeals to nostalgia, and reservoirs of affection for colorful, earthy old-school pols who became local icons, could help their cosmopolitan, blow-dried, privileged off-spring considerably.
It’s also worth noting that two Democratic governors seeking re-election in 2014 from two of the nation’s largest states – California and New York - both count as sons of previous governors who, in their hey-day, inspired widespread adulation. In the Golden State, in fact, Jerry Brown not only relies on nostalgia for the long ago service of his dad, Pat Brown (1959-67) but bemused recollections from his own first crack at the governorship some forty years ago (1975-83).
For Republicans, dynastic candidacies have become far less common than they are for their Democratic rivals. Among GOP Senatorial candidates this year, only Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia counts as the child of a prominent officeholder: three-time governor Arch Moore. She hardly stresses the association, however, in part because Governor Moore ended his career with guilty pleas on five federal felony charges for extortion and obstruction of justice. It’s tough for candidates to wax nostalgic about bringing back that old time corruption.
It least that’s tough for Republican candidates, though Democrats have no difficulty at all in revisiting all the innumerable scandals and embarrassments of the Clinton era on behalf of the party’s prohibitive presidential favorite. It’s also worth noting that while Hillary’s family name all but assures her the top of the ticket if she chooses to run, a Jeb Bush candidacy hardly represents a similar sure thing for the nomination if he pursues the same prize his father and brother won. In fact, according to common calculus, the former Governor’s famous last name counts as more of an obstacle than an advantage to his White House prospects.
In part, this reflects the conservative obsession with self-made men and women: since Lincoln, Republicans almost always preferred candidates who raised themselves from humble circumstances, as did Grant, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Reagan. It’s no accident that the two most prominent political dynasties in the nation’s modern history, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, are both primarily associated with the Democratic Party – and both boast familial wealth that puts GOP alternatives like the Tafts and the Bushes to shame. Republicans love the narrative of low-born, hard-working strivers who pursue honorable profit and achieve benevolent power; Democrats feel most profoundly stirred by patrician super-men (FDR and JFK and RFK – not to mention John Kerry and Al Gore) who descend from their privileged perches to inspire and organize the perennially oppressed masses.
The other explanation for the widespread Democratic reliance on the children of previous politicos is that these nominees help to mask the leftist, elitist, and beltway-based essence of the present party. If they can sell their contenders as just another good ol’, down-home Landrieu, Pryor, Udall, or Nunn, then they disguise the fact that these families have “gone native” in the nation’s capital many decades ago. The recollection of old-time candidates with much thicker regional accents and more plausibly small-town styles, helps the younger generation escape association with today’s widely unpopular liberal orthodoxy and elitism.
Liberals love to insist that they want Americans to choose the future over the past. But in many if not most of the decisive Senate races in 2014, they’re hoping that nostalgic voters will select the party’s fondly-remembered past over its widely discredited present.