Politics & Policy

Democratic Dynasties Lose Their Luster

Senator Mary Landrieu on Capitol Hill (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In the Senate races, political legatees are finding out that famous family names are not enough.

For those of us who get the willies at the thought of hereditary political dynasties, recent polls look encouraging. At least among Democrats running for the Senate, political legatees are struggling almost universally as this year’s campaign enters its long final stretch. Voters thinking wisely will decide not that these children of the famous deserve to lose because of their well-known names, but that their names decidedly do not warrant their election or reelection if they haven’t otherwise earned it.

Result: For the first time in ages, the dynastic trend in American politics might be substantially, and blessedly, reversed.

Of those dynastic Democrats, it is perhaps odd that the one who arguably has worked the hardest to establish her unique political identity, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, is also the only one who has used her father (Moon Landrieu, former New Orleans mayor) in ads (pretty good ones, too) once her back was to the wall. When those ads aired in May, she obviously didn’t know that claiming her parents’ house as her main Louisiana residence would become a campaign embarrassment for her. The brouhaha over Senator Landrieu’s residence made it look as if the only thing keeping her from being a creature of the dreaded Beltway is the way she clutches to her father’s legacy. Landrieu now runs 4.6 points behind challenger Bill Cassidy in the RealClearPolitics average.

At the other extreme from Landrieu, who is embracing her popular father, lies Colorado’s Mark Udall, who vociferously complained about a low-key ad from his opponent, Cory Gardner, because it dared to mention that Mark Udall has two cousins in the Senate and that his dad, Mo, once ran for president. Udall obviously realizes that association with a longstanding political establishment is a major detriment this year. He trails in the RCP average by 1.5 points — and his campaign ads have been subject to brutal smack-downs from a local TV station, which has called them “politics at its worst.”

In Alaska, congressional scion Mark Begich is now running consistently behind challenger Dan Sullivan (Sullivan is up by 4.7 points, according to the RCP average). As far as one can tell, Begich has made such little impression in the Senate that he remains nearly a cipher to Alaskans. He also suffers from the sense that the only reason he edged into the Senate seat in the first place was that longtime Republican senator Ted Stevens, now deceased, was unfairly convicted, shortly before Election Day in 2008, of making false statements about gifts he had received. (Stevens’s conviction has since been reversed, after an FBI whistleblower revealed that the government had withheld exculpatory evidence, and Stevens is now increasingly revered in retrospect.) Meanwhile, the one Alaska political legatee whose popularity remains intact, Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, has cut a strong ad on behalf of Sullivan, further damaging Begich’s cause.

Mark Pryor of Arkansas, son of former governor and senator David Pryor, is similarly flailing. His two undistinguished terms in the Senate make him look like a big nothingburger. Then again, that’s all he ever needed to be. He has spent his career cultivating a nice-guy image while sporting his famous name and making just the right references, always tastefully understated, to his admirable victory over a dangerous cancer. This year, though, while fighting for his political life, he suddenly has sacrificed his nice-guy-ness, probably irretrievably, by running a relentlessly negative (and meretricious) campaign. Pryor is so tone-deaf that he, the prototypical “senator’s son,” dared suggest that it was his challenger, Tom Cotton, who exhibited a “sense of entitlement” . . . for having served his country in the military. RCP has Pryor down by 3.6 points.

In Georgia, Democratic challenger Michelle Nunn may be the only Democratic candidate in the country clearly benefiting from her family name. Her father, former senator Sam Nunn, remains popular in Georgia and is active in his daughter’s campaign. Indeed, it is extremely doubtful that her own career so far would have earned her the Democratic nomination if her last name were Dunn — or even, in this pro–Second Amendment state, Gunn — instead of Nunn. Her own campaign plan noted her vulnerability to attack as a “lightweight,” and it’s obvious that she is fortunate she can trade on her father’s heft. Still, RCP has her trailing Republican David Perdue by 3.2 points, perhaps a sign that even where a legacy helps, it might not help as much as it once did, or as much as necessary to win.

Indeed, the only Democratic beneficiary of a family political name who appears safe is Tom Udall of New Mexico (Mark Udall’s cousin), perhaps because he drew an opponent who, while spirited and energetic, is far from a political heavyweight.

So we see that a revered last name is no longer a near-guarantee of political success. It’s not that the legacy status is harming the Democrats in question (except maybe in Colorado, thanks to Cory Gardner’s light touch in his ad against the Udall establishment), but that it no longer seems to help, especially absent other significant accomplishment. Obviously, the larger reason for all of these candidates’ struggles (apart from their own thin achievements) is that they serve in states that are not safe for Democrats, in a year when the national environment for Democrats is awful.

Still, if in past years somebody had suggested that a single political season could see losses by a Pryor, a Udall, a Nunn, a Landrieu, and a Begich, that person’s political acuity would surely have been seen as null and void.

The good news for Republicans is that the political legacies were just about the only thing keeping Democrats competitive in many states that are purple but trending red. Democrats already have lost their “blue dogs,” and now their silver spoons may be worthless, too. All of which could leave the GOP basking in a decidedly golden glow.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.

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