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.

National Journal
Andrea Drusch
Aug. 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

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:


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.”


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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