Published on TheHill.com on November 11, 2014
Lost among the scattered debris of the Democratic midterm disaster is another phenomenon: the widespread rejection of dynastic politicians. Three of the five defeated Democratic senators who ran for reelection (assuming a runoff loss by Louisiana’s Sen. Mary Landrieu and the loss of Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska) belong to families whose famous last names had paved their way for a cakewalk entry into high political office.
Arkansas’s Sen. Mark Pryor is the son of David Pryor, a former governor, senator and U.S. representative. The father of Colorado’s Sen. Mark Udall was Morris “Mo” Udall, a former congressman and presidential candidate, as well as the brother of former Congressman and Kennedy Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Landrieu’s father, Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, was the legendary mayor of New Orleans. And Begich’s father was Alaska Congressman Nick Begich (the fifth Democrat to lose in the Senate was Kay Hagan in North Carolina). Together with the retirement of Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia, five scions of famous families are leaving the Senate.
That only leaves four legacy senators: Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Mark Udall’s cousin Tom (D-N.M.,), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). And with both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush lining up as possible 2016 presidential contenders, the reasons for the obliteration of the current generation of dynastics becomes even important.
Perhaps the biggest problem that the defeated dynastics carried into their reelection campaigns is that they were initially propelled into office almost solely by their name. Few Arkansans knew much about Mark Pryor when he was elected. His record as attorney general was minimal, and he was primarily known as the kind of moderate, middle-of-the-road, reliable political figure his father had been — good ol’ David’s boy. Now, exposed to the glare of a multimillion-dollar national race, his limited abilities became apparent, for example, when he couldn’t answer a question about what he thought of the president’s Ebola policy. His values became questionable when his 1985 undergraduate thesis was unearthed, asserting that the use of federal troops to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 was an “unwilling invasion.” Without a strong personal image, he had no weapons to counter the negatives.
Similarly, Mark Udall’s election as senator in Colorado was in the green shadow of his father and uncle’s record at the Interior Department. Fitting neatly into the Democratic environmental groove, he won easily. But, up for reelection, his overly aggressive focus on the Republican “war on women” led many to see him as manipulative and one-dimensional.
Mary Landrieu had never been under the pressure she found in 2014. Elected three times as the uniquely Louisianan daughter of Moon Landrieu, she avoided being pigeonholed into her party’s liberal wing. But voters judged her harshly this time. Her lack of a real Louisiana residence and the focus on President Obama’s delay of the Keystone XL oil pipeline became big negatives. Her support of the president’s immigration policies and loyalty to Harry Reid made voters see, for the first time, who she really is. And her characterization of Louisiana voters as particularly hard on black and female candidates has made her defeat in the runoff a virtual certainty.
As voters learn who these senators are, they also learn how much they are unlike their predecessors. Mark Pryor was faulted for lacking his father’s intimate bonding with the state. Mark Udall seemed to lack his dad’s adventurous passion. Neither Landrieu nor Begich had their fathers’ nonpartisan identification with their state’s roots and past.
Will Clinton and Bush survive the current distaste for political relatives if they run for the highest office in 2016? Will Hillary Clinton’s lack of her husband’s economic clarity and wisdom hurt her? Or will Bill Clinton’s ability to make friends and charm adversaries by finding common ground help her campaign? Is her limited creativity more obvious when compared with the former president’s?
Does Bush have the experienced hand at foreign policy of his father, George H.W. Bush? Or his brother George W. Bush’s facility for instant intimacy?
As we learn who sons or daughters of famous names are, we also learn what they are not, and the knowledge often strips them of their potential appeal.
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