The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kansas political daughter Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker rode father’s coattails

Michelle Nunn, Liz Cheney, Gwen Graham and Alison Lundergan Grimes aren’t the first political daughters to follow in their father’s footsteps. Kansas, hardly known as a bastion of progressiveness these days, can claim Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker (R-Kan.), who was elected 35 years ago.

After the win of Nancy Landon Kassebaum, as she was known then, in 1978, The New York Times said, “if her maiden name were Jones her campaign would have been a joke.”

Her response?: “It has been said I am riding on the coattails of my dad, but I can’t think of any better coattails to ride on.”

There’s no doubt she capitalized on her family’s name and connections. She used “A fresh face, a trusted Kansas name” as her campaign slogan, trading on the popularity of her father, Alfred “Alf” Landon, who served as governor of Kansas from 1933 to 1937 and who ran on the Republican ticket against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

She was just four years old when her father won only the states of Maine and Vermont in FDR’s landslide victory. But she said she got her political education by listening to her father and his friends through a heating vent in her bedroom.

Yet her father actually discouraged her from running in 1978 because he didn’t believe Kansas was ready to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate.

Granted, she had little political experience: She’d served on the local school board as president, and she had management experience as vice president of the family’s radio stations. But after her separation from her husband, she and her four children moved to Washington where she worked as an assistant to Sen. James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) as a liaison between constituents and federal agencies. It was Pearson’s seat Kassebaum Baker won after his retirement.

Depending on how you calculate these things, she was either the first or the second woman elected to the U.S. Senate without following in the footsteps of a late husband. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) succeeded her husband to the House of Representatives after his death in 1940 before running for the U.S. Senate in 1948.

Kassebaum Baker beat out a field of eight in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race, including another woman. She proved a popular senator, and won reelection in 1984 with 78 percent of the vote, and in 1990 with more than 73 percent. But she decided against running in 1996, and in December of that year, married Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), the former Republican majority leader.

Her name had been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988.

Kassebaum Baker was my kind of Republican: She was called a “maverick” years before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) claimed the name. She tended to support her party on defense and the budget, but remained an independent when it came to social issues. She supported a woman’s right to abortion. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment

She even worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Kennedy-Kassebaum Bill or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, an early attempt to overhaul health care in the United States by limiting the exclusion of preexisting conditions and mandating accountability by ensuring privacy.

I had the privilege of hearing Kassebaum Baker speak in 1997 on an atrociously hot July day in Atchison, Kan., at the birthplace of Amelia Earhart celebrating the 100th birthday of the famous aviatrix.

Afterward, I took my five-year-old daughter over to meet Kansas’s first woman senator, who signed a program for my daughter and even posed for a photo. And of course I used it as a teaching moment that women could grow up and become whatever they want to be.

Whether they follow in the footsteps of their fathers (or mothers) or make their own path.