Heiresses apparent: Daughters take their turn for the political dynasty

July 26, 2013

American political dynasties historically have been built on power passed from fathers to sons, brothers to brothers, even husbands to wives: the Adamses, the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons.

Now, it is the daughters’ turn.

When Michelle Nunn announced her bid to become a U.S. senator from Georgia this week, she scrambled the usual red-state, blue-state political calculus, putting in play a seat that could tip the balance of power in the Senate.

Without Nunn’s powerful political last name, there would be little hope that the 46-year-old Democrat who has never run for public office could win in that solidly conservative state.

But in politics, names have coattails. In Nunn’s case, it will boost her ability to raise money and build support from backers of her father, former senator Sam Nunn, revered in his home state for his 24-year Senate career and his post-congressional work on nuclear nonproliferation.

A similar father-daughter tale is unfolding in Wyoming, where Liz Cheney, daughter of longtime congressman and former vice president Dick Cheney, is mounting what would otherwise be a long-shot bid to topple incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi in the Republican primary.

Perhaps more than any previous year, the 2014 midterm campaigns feature a wave of daughters eager to embrace their fathers’ political legacies while forging their own political futures. And at a time when the 2016 presidential field appears likely to include both the son of a prominent politician (Rand Paul) and the wife of a president (Hillary Rodham Clinton), it is no surprise that daughters are forming a political class of their own.

Political newbie Gwen Graham is expected to amass an impressive war chest in her bid for a northern Florida U.S. House seat, thanks in part to her father, former Democratic senator Bob Graham. In Nevada, Democratic political consultant Erin Bilbray-Kohn is running to unseat two-term Republican Rep. Joseph J. Heck. Her campaign Web site identifies her only as “Erin Bilbray,” perhaps trading on the name recognition of her father, former congressman James Bilbray.

And Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, a task that might seem quixotic — yet her political pedigree (her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a former state senator and a political bigwig in the Bluegrass State) has helped make her a credible candidate.

Another political scion, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, has launched her first Senate run. Though the seven-term Republican is no newbie, she owes some of her political chops to her dad, Arch Moore, a former West Virginia governor and congressman.

By contrast, there’s only one son of a lawmaker, Mike Collins of Georgia, son of former Republican congressman Mac Collins, seeking a congressional seat in the next election.

“When I was growing up, there was no expectation of the girls going into politics,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend recalls of her experience as a daughter of America’s most storied political dynasty. The former lieutenant governor of Maryland is the eldest child of Robert Kennedy, just one luminary in a clan that has also produced a president, two senators and a handful of congressmen.

Kennedy Townsend remembers that her own political ambitions were welcomed, if not expected, something that has changed for a younger generation. “These women grew up in a very different time, and I’m excited to see that change.”

‘An evolutionary trend’

Politicians passing down political DNA to daughters isn’t new: Prominent female lawmakers with a political lineage include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). But as women enter politics in greater numbers, it’s becoming more common for a daughter to be the one to take up the family mantle. The current boomlet of political daughters may be a signal that politics is an increasingly gender-neutral family business.

It used to be that a woman got into politics “over her husband’s dead body,” a morbid joke reflecting how common it was for a woman to launch her public career only by filling the seat left by a deceased spouse. Dozens of women took that path, and many — like Margaret Chase Smith, who filled the seat left vacant when her husband, Rep. Clyde Smith (R-Maine), fell ill — went on to have distinguished careers in their own right. Chase Smith eventually won a Senate seat and became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major political party.

Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, sees the rise of political daughters as “part of an evolutionary trend” in how women come to power. “You’ve always seen children going into the family business, whether that’s a grocery store or politics,” she says. “It’s a situation where women hadn’t been as welcomed into the business or political world, and that’s changing.”

The same advantages that have long applied to the sons of politicians seeking office themselves apply to women, of course. Name recognition is a big benefit. If a political race is a 100-yard dash, having a well-known name can put a candidate at the 10-yard marker just to start.

Access to a ready-made political network and potential donors also doesn’t hurt.

But Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says names are only part of the equation. Family stories, he says, are important for any candidate, whether their surname is well-known, like Kennedy, or unfamiliar, like Obama.

“If a candidate does come from a family that has a strong tradition, that has done remarkable things, and a voter already has information about that, it can be helpful,” Canter said. And he notes that though candidates with political family connections may well have networks they can tap to raise a campaign war chest, so might other candidates with deep roots in her home state or district.

Father’s influence

For some, the biggest advantage might be learning the nuts and bolts of politics at the dinner table.

Pelosi, the highest-ranking political daughter right now, didn’t have the benefit of strong name recognition, and she ran 3,000 miles from the district represented by her father, Tommy D’Alesandro, the legendary Democratic congressman and Baltimore mayor. But she learned some job skills early on. As a little girl, she was in charge of the book her father kept that tallied favors owed and paid.

And in the campaigns of the political daughters now running for the Congress, one can see their fathers’ influence.

Lundergan Grimes, for example, is drawing from her father’s friendship with former president Bill Clinton: The Clinton imprimatur is expected to give her a fundraising boon, and Lundergan Grimes’s staff includes veterans of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential bid.

In Cheney’s case, her father’s national profile might help with fundraising, but the goodwill he enjoys in the Cowboy State is considered to be her best defense against accusations of carpetbagging: She spent decades in the Washington area before moving back to Wyoming last year.

It’s too soon to tell where — or if — the candidates will break with their famous fathers’ political views. Cheney, in particular, is seen as an alter ego of her notoriously hard-line conservative father. “We can get our nation back on track,” Cheney said in a video announcing her candidacy. “Instead of cutting deals with the president’s liberal allies, we should be opposing them every step of the way.”

All of them appear happy to accept the gravitas that might be implied by their parents’ often-storied careers. Yet the names on the ballots will ultimately be their own, and voters’ brand loyalty extends only so far.

“Eventually, of course, you are judged by your own accomplishments,” Kennedy Townsend says.

Matriarchal dynasties

The next step in the “evolutionary” process may very well see women as the bequeathers of family political legacies, not just inheritors.

There is a handful of female lawmakers whose sons and grandsons have gone on to succeed them or join their ranks in Washington — think of the late congresswoman Julia Carson (D-Ind.), whose grandson André Carson now holds her former House seat. But so far, there hasn’t been a woman in Congress with a daughter who followed her footsteps.

Stephen Hess, the Brookings Institution scholar who wrote the book “Political Dynasties,” predicts that it’s only a matter of time.

For example, Emily’s List, the organization that recruits pro-choice Democratic candidates, already has its eye on Hannah Pingree, the former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and the daughter of Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).

“In time, we’ll start to see dynasties that look very female,” Hess says.

Ruth Tam contributed to this report.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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