Red-State Democrats Turn to Their Families for Campaign Help

Vulnerable Democratic senators realize their last names may be their biggest assets.

Reps. Mark and Tom Udall
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
Add to Briefcase
Emily Schultheis
July 20, 2014, 5:10 p.m.

With Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al weak and Con­gress grid­locked, many red-state Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors seek­ing reelec­tion have struggled to come up with is­sues to run on. But one com­mon theme has emerged from their cam­paign mes­saging: They’re turn­ing to their own fam­il­ies to help save their seats.

Demo­crats in al­most all of 2014’s cru­cial Sen­ate battle­grounds — in sev­en of the nine Sen­ate races rated as “Toss-ups” by The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port — come from fam­il­ies with a his­tory in state or fed­er­al polit­ics. That in­cludes all four sen­at­ors who are up in states Mitt Rom­ney car­ried in the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

Sen. Mary Landrieu’s fath­er, Moon Landrieu, served as may­or of New Or­leans, a post her broth­er Mitch holds today; Sen. Mark Be­gich’s fath­er, Nick Be­gich, rep­res­en­ted Alaska in Con­gress for two years be­fore be­ing killed in a plane crash; Sen. Mark Pry­or’s fath­er, Dav­id Pry­or, served Arkan­sas for 16 years in the U.S. Sen­ate.

And it’s a test­a­ment to how much polit­ic­al lin­eage is present in these races that the least con­nec­ted of the four is Sen. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, whose uncle, Law­ton Chiles, served as the gov­ernor and U.S. sen­at­or for Flor­ida.

The polit­ic­al-dyn­asty dy­nam­ic also ap­plies to the two Demo­crats run­ning in red-state races con­sidered po­ten­tial pickup op­por­tun­it­ies for the party: Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes’s fath­er, Jerry Lun­der­gan, is a former Ken­tucky Demo­crat­ic Party chair­man and long­time polit­ic­al scion in the Bluegrass State; and Michelle Nunn is the daugh­ter of long­time Sen. Sam Nunn of Geor­gia. (Not to men­tion Geor­gia state Sen. Jason Carter in the gov­ernor’s race, whose grand­fath­er is former Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter.)

There’s also Sen. Mark Ud­all, fa­cing a tough reelec­tion battle in the more com­pet­it­ive state of Col­or­ado: He’s the son of Mo Ud­all, a con­gress­man from Ari­zona and a 1976 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate.

Those fam­ily ties can be a big boon to can­did­ates and in­cum­bents in polit­ic­ally tough states. In ad­di­tion to the high name iden­ti­fic­a­tion that comes with a polit­ic­al last name, can­did­ates from dyn­asty fam­il­ies in­her­it polit­ic­al con­nec­tions and a fun­drais­ing net­work, and they of­ten be­ne­fit from pos­it­ive memor­ies of and feel­ings to­ward their elec­ted fam­ily mem­bers.

Be­ing part of a polit­ic­al dyn­asty also re­in­forces these can­did­ates’ ties to the state, which is par­tic­u­larly help­ful in races where res­id­ency and roots are an is­sue. In the Alaska Sen­ate race, GOP front-run­ner Dan Sul­li­van was born in Ohio and is be­ing at­tacked by Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent Be­gich as an “out­sider.” Be­gich’s long fam­ily his­tory in the state provides a help­ful con­trast.

Util­iz­ing fam­ily ties is clearly part of these Demo­crats’ 2014 play­books: Polit­ic­al par­ents have already shown up in ads across the map, some of them to great ef­fect.

One of Be­gich’s first ads of the cycle, “Alaska’s Son,” fea­tured foot­age of his late fath­er. “Be­gich goes to the people, wherever they are,” the nar­rat­or from the old clip says, show­ing Nick Be­gich get­ting in­to a small pro­peller plane fol­lowed by cov­er­age of his plane’s 1972 dis­ap­pear­ance.

“Mark was 10 when he lost his fath­er,” Be­gich’s wife, De­borah Bonito, says in the ad. “We’ve lost too many Alaskans this way. But Mark is clearly his fath­er’s son, and there’s nowhere he won’t go to listen and stand up for Alaskans.”

Landrieu and Nunn have also fea­tured their fam­ous fath­ers in TV ads this cycle. In Landrieu’s, Moon Landrieu calls his daugh­ter “hard­headed” — “Dad, you’re one to talk,” she replies — and says she’s used that trait to help Louisi­ana in the Sen­ate.

Nunn’s ad be­gins with a men­tion of her fath­er, say­ing she tries to “fol­low in his foot­steps” in­to play­ing bas­ket­ball, but not in­to a ca­reer in polit­ics. The eld­er Nunn comes on-screen at the end, hold­ing a bas­ket­ball: “I think you’ve got a pretty good shot,” he says.

Re­pub­lic­ans have their own crop of dyn­asty can­did­ates on the bal­lot this year, too: Shel­ley Moore Capito, daugh­ter of former West Vir­gin­ia Gov. Arch Moore Jr., is the Moun­tain State’s GOP nom­in­ee for Sen­ate; and George P. Bush, son of Jeb Bush, is run­ning for land com­mis­sion­er in Texas.

A polit­ic­al last name cer­tainly doesn’t guar­an­tee vic­tory, par­tic­u­larly when your polit­ic­al re­l­at­ive isn’t very pop­u­lar. In 2010, for ex­ample, Rory Re­id — son of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id — ran and lost his race for Nevada gov­ernor, an out­come that was in­flu­enced by his un­pop­u­lar fath­er’s pres­ence on the bal­lot that year.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of the story mis­re­por­ted the name of Sen. Be­gich’s wife. It is De­borah Bonito.

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