Phenomenon November 2004

Down Year for Dynasties

Long before George W. Bush followed his father into the White House, it was widely believed that one's name could be the key to public office. After all, American history is peppered with political dynasties, from the famous (Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Gore) to the not-so-famous (Bayh, Dingell, Udall). This year has produced a bumper crop of political Mini-Mes: no fewer than eight sons and daughters of established politicians are running for office, largely—in some cases, it would seem, solely—on the strength of their names.

Tracking these political scions practically requires a scorecard. This year those who sought a congressional seat included Brad Smith (son of Michigan's Nick Smith), Ed Broyhill (son of North Carolina's Jim Broyhill), and Dan Boren (son of Oklahoma's former senator and governor David Boren), along with the Roman-numeral set of Connie Mack IV (son of Florida's Connie Mack III) and Billy Tauzin III (son of Louisiana's Billy Tauzin II). Running for governor is Matt Blunt (son of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, of Missouri), and for the Senate, Lisa Murkowski (daughter of Alaska's Governor Frank Murkowski). It's doubtful that anyone running faces more family pressure than Russ Carnahan, who is seeking Dick Gephardt's seat in Missouri, because Carnahan is the child of two politicos: his late father, Mel, was the state's longtime governor, and his mother, Jean, was a U.S. senator.

The reason that political progeny are so plentiful is simple: a famous last name confers instant recognition among voters—and very often Mom's or Dad's network of donors, too. Political experts consider these components crucial, because of the ever increasing cost of campaigns. The right surname can even ward off potential competitors.

But the advantages seem to be diminishing. In the most recent election cycle Scott Armey (son of the former House majority leader Dick Armey) and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (daughter of Robert F. Kennedy) were notable offspring who went down to defeat. And this year Bush isn't the only political scion who could be in trouble. Nearly everyone running for Congress or a governorship is struggling—or has already lost—in his or her bid to follow in a parent's footsteps.

Smith and Broyhill both tanked in the primaries. Tauzin, Blunt, and Murkowski all face dogfights with their opponents in the general election. Carnahan edged past a crowded field with just 23 percent of the vote, and Mack narrowly won his primary too. Only Boren sailed to primary victory and looks to have a lock on a House seat.

Has the American political dynasty fallen victim to populist outrage? Probably not. Instead, the political analyst Stuart Rothenberg argues, many of the current legacy candidates simply aren't as good as their parents—but "strong candidates with really good names and really good credentials have done really well." Indeed, Boren was elected to the Oklahoma statehouse at age twenty-nine. But other legacies have less impressive credentials. Neither Smith nor Broyhill had any political experience. And Mack's résumé could politely be termed "nontraditional" for an aspiring congressman—even in Florida. He has a history of bar fights and has done marketing work for the restaurant chain Hooters.

Simply put, Rothenberg says, "the name doesn't guarantee victory." Occasionally, dynastic nepotism can even thwart it. Alaska is as Republican as they come, yet Murkowski's Senate race is one of the most competitive in the country—primarily because her father somewhat imperiously appointed her to succeed him when he left the Senate, and his poor favorability ratings threaten to drag her down.

Murkowski might even be wishing what would once have been unthinkable: that she had a different last name.

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