The Waning Power of Political Dynasties

Based on 2014 elections, dynastic branding doesn't mean as much as it used too.
by | April 21, 2015

In an era when Americans are busier than ever, and when building name recognition through TV ads is becoming prohibitively expensive, it's no surprise then that two of the current frontrunners in the 2016 presidential campaign are members of political dynasties: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. And while Bush and Clinton certainly exemplify the importance of dynastic branding, being part of a famous political family appears to be losing some of its punch at the ballot box. Just consider some of the results from the 2014 election.

Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, ran a credible race against Republican incumbent Nathan Deal in Georgia yet ended up losing by an unexpectedly large margin of 8 points. In New Mexico, Democratic state Attorney General Gary King, the son of a former governor, was unable to defeat Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. And in Rhode Island, Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chafee, whose father preceded him in the U.S. Senate, decided not to run for a second term amid weak approval ratings.

This pattern was even stronger in last year's U.S. Senate races. No fewer than six U.S. Senate candidates with noteworthy family ties lost races in 2014, all of them Democrats -- Nick Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Udall of Colorado, Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

Of course, a couple gubernatorial candidates with family histories in their state did win governorships last fall: Democrats Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, and Republicans Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas and Larry Hogan in Maryland, the son of a former congressman. (Although that fact was not widely known in Maryland, making it essentially a nonfactor in the race.)

Still, 2014 results illustrate a growing tendency: Partisan affiliation increasingly trumps longstanding familiarity and accumulated goodwill from bearing a famous political name. In last year's gubernatorial races, Democrats Brown and Cuomo won largely because they were running in two of the nation's bluest states, while Hutchinson was running in one of the reddest. Carter, by contrast, faced an uphill climb as a Democrat in a red state, no matter his famous name.

And in the U.S. Senate contests, Begich, Grimes, Landrieu, Nunn and Pryor were running as Democrats in states that have become solidly Republican, particularly in federal-level races. Observers say Democrats will continue to be distinct underdogs in statewide races in most of these places for years to come.

This was presaged four years earlier in solidly Republican Tennessee, when Mike McWherter, the son of former Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter, lost the gubernatorial race to Republican Bill Haslam. "Any Democrat would have been destroyed," said University of Tennessee political scientist Anthony Nownes. "Being a McWherter did not help him at all."

This was the case in 2014 in Georgia and in Arkansas -- where a Republican state chairman once quipped that if Mark Pryor had a different last name than his U.S. senator father, "he'd be a busboy at a Taco Bell." The losses in each of these states can be very simply summed up this way: "The 2014 elections strongly suggest that the partisan passions trump traditional personal connections and commitments," said Hal Bass, an Ouachita Baptist University political scientist.

It's worth noting that the prominence of family dynasties varies widely from state to state. Some states have been home to many well-entrenched political dynasties. In Louisiana, Huey and Earl Long were political giants, and even today, a relative, Gerald Long, serves in the state Senate and is considered a potential contender for higher office. And Mary Landrieu's brother Mitch is mayor of New Orleans.

Other names echo throughout the generations: the descendants of President William Howard Taft in Ohio, for instance, or of the Kennedys in Massachusetts. In Indiana, the names are Bayh, Jacobs, Carson and Helmke. In Rhode Island, it's Chafee and Pell. In New Hampshire, it's Gregg, Sununu and Bass. In Illinois, it's Daley, Lipinski and Madigan.

In Missouri, it's been Carnahan, Blunt, Clay and Emerson. The scions of some of these Missouri families "had nothing really going for them other than their relation to the principal candidate," said Kenneth Warren, a Saint Louis University political scientist. "None of them would have won on their own."

Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, lost to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in Georgia. (AP/David Goldman)

In other states, there are few if any political dynasties. Sometimes the lack of one stems from the absence of political heirs seeking high office. In other states, though, candidates with family connections have tried and failed to win the support of voters. A good example is Minnesota, where Democrats Ted Mondale (son of former Vice President Walter Mondale), Mike Freeman (son of former Gov. Orville Freeman) and Skip Humphrey (son of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey) succeeded in securing mid-level offices but fell short of winning higher offices like their famous fathers did.

Indeed, second-generation candidates may have an easier time running for mid-level offices such as state treasurer or public service commissioner, where the stakes are lower, the scrutiny is more limited and where a political brand can go a long way. "Having a parent or even grandparent who has created a successful legacy is an enormous hand up for the child," said Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana-Lafayette political scientist. "The name recognition and the parent's connections give them instant access to the important contacts necessary to win elections."

Baggage from the relative's tenure can pose problems, of course. But, according to former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder, a Democrat from Alabama, "Temporal distance seems to breed nostalgia" about a parent's tenure in office.