When the Name's the Same, the Result Is Confusion

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009

In 1996, Charles S. Robb got them mixed up when one Warner challenged another for U.S. Senate. And Robb should have known better: At the time, he was Virginia's junior senator.

Even after Warner the Democrat won an easy election 12 years later to replace the retiring incumbent, Warner the Republican, cable newscasters still flubbed who was who.

"There were lots of times I was called John. I'm not sure there were many times he was called Mark," said the man who will be the new Sen. Warner when Congress convenes tomorrow.

Just to be clear: That's Mark R., succeeding John W.

In the Warner vs. Warner race, even the playful campaign sticker "MARKNOTJOHN" occasionally spawned bewilderment. A Danville voter asked the Democrat one day if it was a biblical reference.

In the years after that campaign, the Democrat developed a stock response to the confusion. "I would say, 'Hey, I tried to spend $10 million to point out there's a difference!' But I took it as a compliment," the former telecommunications entrepreneur said.

Opportunities for name confusion are nothing new to Capitol Hill. For many years, Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.) and his son and successor, Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., served with another Democrat named Byrd -- Sen. Robert C. Byrd, that is, of West Virginia.

Congress has two Democratic senators named Nelson, Bill of Florida and Ben of Nebraska. The House of Representatives last year had three Bishops, two Kings and five Millers, like the cast of a Shakespeare play. There were eight Davises in the House during the 110th Congress, including Fairfax County Republican Tom, who retired last year.

Typically, dynastic politics keeps family names going, said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian. After Sen. Huey P. Long (D-La.) was assassinated in 1935, his wife, Rose, finished his term. Son Russell B. Long took up the mantle years later, serving almost four decades.

"The name is like a brand name. It's trusted by people in the state," Ritchie said. "They voted for your father or your grandfather or your uncle."

The Warner transition is a rare riff on that tradition. Mark Warner, 54, a popular former governor, didn't roll into the Senate on his surname. "This is just an unusual situation where the brand name belongs to a different party completely," Ritchie said.

After the 1996 campaign, the Warners developed an unusual rapport.

"They were like-minded in a lot of ways," said John Ullyot, a former aide to the Republican. "They found they probably agreed on 80 percent of policies, if not more."

"We just started a friendship," Mark Warner said.

At the peak of a political standoff over state finances in 2004, Sen. Warner drove to Richmond to side with Gov. Warner on the need for a tax increase. It was the defining struggle of the governor's term, and the state's senior senator stood at the Capitol and declared: "Politics be damned."

John Warner, 81, might be somewhat wistful about the job in Richmond he never had. On the wall of his former Senate office, amid memorabilia from a 30-year career that spanned more than 10,000 votes, were photos of his son, daughters, mother, wife and grandchildren. Also on display was a photo of the senator in Mark Warner's chair at the Virginia Capitol,with the governor standing just behind him.

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