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Throwback Senators: The Must-Have 2014 Campaign Accessory

From a father in Arkansas to the "Alaskan of the Century," former senators have played important roles in numerous 2014 campaigns.

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Late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska (left).(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In Hawaii, the popular Daniel Inouye's dying wish affected the race to succeed him. In Oklahoma, thinly veiled support from retiring Sen. Tom Coburn helped tip the scales in the hard-fought race to replace him. And in Alaska, candidates from both parties have invoked the late Ted Stevens—even Sen. Mark Begich, the Democrat who denied Stevens a seventh term in 2008.

Though anti-incumbency sentiment runs high among voters, some former senators remain so well-liked that candidates running in their states this year are falling all over themselves to link up with their legacies.

 

"I think for Inouye, it was his long-servingness," the late senator's chief of staff, Jennifer Sabas, said of Hawaii's admiration for her boss. "For so many of us he's been our elected representative since the day we were born." Inouye regularly won reelection with around 80 percent of the vote before he died in late 2012.

Inouye's deathbed endorsement of Rep. Colleen Hanabusa as his replacement not only affected the state's Senate race; it may also have contributed to Gov. Neil Abercrombie's huge primary loss. (Abercrombie appointed then-Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to the seat instead.)

Voters, especially in Republican primaries, have proven more than willing to oust senior senators with decades of experience. Things that made many recent legacy senators like Inouye popular—lengthy tenures, bringing home pet projects and federal dollars, and working across party lines to cut deals—are the very criticisms many candidates now try to escape on the trail.

 

But that hasn't stopped candidates from holding up popular former lawmakers as models and validators in 2014. Here's a look at five states where former senators are playing a role in their state's 2014 race:

Alaska

In the Last Frontier, both candidates have cited Ted Stevens to make their case—even though one of them removed him from office. The late senator, who died in a 2010 plane crash, represented Alaska for more than 40 years, directing federal money home from his powerful position on the Appropriations Committee and earning himself the title of "Alaskan of the Century." Alaskans still refer to him as "Uncle Ted," celebrate Ted Stevens Day, and fly into and out of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Even in Alaska, federal spending has declined in popularity since Stevens's day, but Republicans are still linking current standard-bearer Dan Sullivan with the late senator, helping give authenticity to a candidate who's been pummeled as an "outsider." One super PAC ad, designed by longtime Alaska political consultant and onetime Stevens adviser Art Hackney, showed Sullivan in a composite image with Stevens and former president Ronald Reagan. Another featured a woman who said Sullivan reminds her of Stevens.

 

For Begich, invoking the name of a man he narrowly persuaded voters to fire six years ago is a little more complicated. Stevens was indicted and convicted during the 2008 campaign on charges of failing to properly report gifts, which Begich exploited that year (though the conviction was later overturned). But as the red-state Democrat tries to woo conservative voters, he has used former Stevens supporters as validators. In Begich campaign ads, longtime Republican voters say they've supported Stevens and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the past but plan to go with Begich this fall.

Hawaii

When Hawaii's much-loved Sen. Inouye passed away mid-term, he left a note requesting that Hanabusa be named his successor. When Gov. Abercrombie passed over Hanabusa and chose Schatz instead, it laid the groundwork for Democrats' only competitive Senate primary of 2014.

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Disregarding Inouye's dying wish drew a dramatic response from the slighted, overlapping group of Inouye and Hanabusa supporters. Though Hanabusa ultimately lost in a close race, Inouye's family lined up behind her, as did many of his old supporters.

"I think that the voters who decided to take that into consideration weighed, in light of his years in the Senate, what were the important skill sets to have," Sabas said.

Oklahoma

Retiring Sen. Coburn's resignation announcement earlier this year left two young wannabe successors scrambling to define themselves among Oklahoma Republicans, with both sides jockeying to lay claim to the very popular incumbent's legacy. Though Coburn said early on he wouldn't endorse, many saw his public letter decrying attack ads during the primary as a tacit endorsement of Rep. James Lankford.

Lankford's opponent, former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon, suggested instead that his reputation as a deficit hawk in the statehouse made him Coburn's ideological heir. Ultimately, voters sided with Lankford in June, giving him a surprisingly large victory.

Georgia

Few fathers wouldn't want to help their daughters win a Senate seat. And few are as well-positioned to help as former Sen. Sam Nunn, who spent 25 years representing Georgia in the chamber as a conservative Democrat who wasn't afraid to split from his party, especially on fiscal issues. Seen often on the trail with Democrats' 2014 candidate, daughter Michelle Nunn, the former senator has fans on both sides of the aisle from Senate days and could help his daughter make inroads with white conservatives, which she'll need to go from underdog to officeholder.

Nunn isn't the only former senator in Nunn's camp. Zell Miller, a onetime Democratic governor and senator—but one who endorsed President Bush for reelection in 2004—recently gave Michelle a boost with a flattering video endorsement. "Michelle Nunn gives this old Georgian hope," the 82-year-old Miller says in a campaign video. "She's a bridge builder, not a bridge burner."

Arkansas

Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is also getting a helping hand from a popular former senator who just happens to share his last name. David Pryor, who also served as governor, remains extremely popular in the state after a long career of advocating on behalf of elderly residents, including chairing the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Now his son is in the midst of a race that has focused heavily on Social Security, Medicare, and seniors, and David Pryor has become a valuable surrogate for his son as the incumbent tries to attract anti-Obama voters to his side.

Just last week, Pryor the elder starred in a TV ad for his son that drew attention because the Southern Democrat touted parts of Obamacare. But for voters, the most important part of the ad may have been the fatherly validator.

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