Rand Paul bucks recent trend against political dynasties

Rep. Ron Paul introduces son Rand, a Senate candidate in Kentucky.
Rep. Ron Paul introduces son Rand, a Senate candidate in Kentucky. (Chris Hall For The Washington Post)

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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

It's been a good past seven days for political dynasties.

First, ophthalmologist Rand Paul -- son of 2008 presidential candidate Ron, a Texas congressman -- won a sweeping victory last Tuesday in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary over establishment favorite Trey Grayson. (Paul went on to inexplicably address his quibbles with some elements of the Civil Rights Act, causing a national controversy that overshadowed his win.)

Then, on Saturday, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo ended months -- and months -- of speculation and announced that he is a candidate for governor, the job his father, Mario, held from 1983 to 1994.

While polling suggests Paul is an even-money bet to win and Cuomo a far safer wager, they are the exception to the political rule of late when it comes to dynasties.

Starting in 2008 with the decline and fall of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign -- she was seeking to extend a two-decade streak of people with the last name "Clinton" or "Bush" occupying the White House -- there has been mounting evidence that strong political bloodlines may well be more hindrance than help in voters' eyes.

Already in the 2010 election cycle, Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) have decided to step aside, while Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was defeated at his state party's nominating convention. All three men are the sons of former senators. Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden passed on what was regarded as a near-certain run for the Senate seat that was long held by his father, a.k.a. the vice president of the United States.

In Iowa, Gov. Chet Culver, the son of legendary former senator John Culver, is in deep electoral trouble, with Democrats privately acknowledging that the race is a lost cause. The same scenario appears to be playing out in New Mexico, where former Republican senator Pete Domenici's son -- despite being named Pete Domenici Jr. -- has stumbled badly in his gubernatorial bid and seems headed to defeat in the June 1 GOP primary. And in Tennessee, Mike McWherter, son of former governor Ned Ray McWherter, is the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee but doesn't have much chance of claiming the state's top office in the fall.

What gives? When did a well-known surname turn from gold to dross in electoral politics?

Mark Nevins, a Democratic consultant based in Philadelphia, called a famous last name a "double-edged sword in politics these days," adding: "On the one hand, it has the power to convey instant credibility. On the other, it can imply a sense of entitlement, and the public doesn't like a candidate who thinks he or she deserves their vote without earning it."

In an electoral environment in which the public is deeply suspicious of the "I deserve this" mentality they believe most politicians carry -- see Sen. Arlen Specter's defeat last week in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary as evidence of where that attitude will get you -- the idea of voting for a candidate solely because he or she has a known last name is anathema.

Not all dynastic candidates should be painted with the same broad brush, however. Cuomo has built a considerable political brand in his own right -- secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration and New York's top cop since 2006 -- as have people such as Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D), the daughter of a former governor and former senator, who is running for the seat of retiring Sen. Kit Bond (R), and Wyoming state House Speaker Colin Simpson (R), the son and grandson of U.S. senators, a candidate for governor in the Equality State.

Still, political dynasties seem to be carrying less power in this election cycle than any others in recent memory. Said Democratic consultant Jen Burton: "Just as millions of people rooted for a Butler upset over Duke, people are fed up with the sense of entitlement that dynasties smack of."


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