Family ties no guarantee of success

Liz Cheney (R) and Michelle Nunn (D) are the latest progeny of powerful politicians looking to win political office. 

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Congress is riddled with relatives of former lawmakers. Fifteen senators and 20 congressmen come from political families that helped pave the way for their careers, not to mention those with the surnames Bush, Clinton, Kennedy or Gore. But history is riddled with tales of those who tried, and failed, to repeat their elders’ successes.

What often separates the dynasties from disasters is the same thing that often decides political races: Candidate quality, and a bit of luck.

“Political office isn't inherited, it's earned. The greatest legacy a politician can hand to family members is a set of good working habits,” says Claremont McKenna College professor Jack Pitney. “Success is often a matter of chance and circumstance and sometimes good luck doesn't run into the next generation.”

Here are five success stories of those seeking to build family dynasties — and five stories of those who fell short.

SUCCESS: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Paul began his Senate race a major underdog, and his connection with his father, then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), was seen as more of a liability when he launched his Senate campaign in 2009.

But the younger Paul used his father’s national fundraising network and connections with the exploding Tea Party movement to defeat then-Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) handpicked choice for the seat.

He then held on to dispatch a tough Democratic candidate by a double-digit margin, aided by the state’s Republican lean and the 2010 wave. Paul is now a national star and has led a number of recent polls for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

FAILURE: Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.)

Mack, the son and great-grandson of senators, lost to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2012 despite heavy spending from outside groups on his behalf.

Mack’s campaign was dogged by hostile relations with the Florida media — at times it seemed he spent as much time attacking the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald as Nelson -- and was hurt by reports of road rage and bar fights.

Nelson beat Mack by a 13-point margin, running well ahead of President Obama in the state.

SUCCESSES: Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) & Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

Both Begich and Murkowski come from well-connected political families, and both have fought hard to win on their own.

Begich’s father was Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska), who defeated Murkowski’s father in a 1970 House race. The younger Begich narrowly defeated longtime Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in 2008, who was hobbled by an ethics investigation. He’s likely to face a tough race in 2012.

When Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) won the governorship in 2002, he chose his daughter, Lisa, for his old seat, marking the first time someone ever appointed his child to the Senate.

That hurt both Murkowskis. She had to fend off a primary challenge in 2004 and narrowly won the general election. She also lost a 2010 primary before winning as a write-in candidate.

Her father wasn’t so lucky, losing a primary to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) in 2006.

FAILURE: Rory Reid

Reid, the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), picked a bad time to seek a promotion.

The younger Reid was a rising Democratic star when he ran for governor in 2010, the same year his father was facing a tough reelection battle. It was a terrible year for Democrats and the Reid name carried high negative approval ratings.

Harry Reid pulled off a 5-point win over a weak Tea Party candidate, but Rory Reid lost by a 12-point margin to now-Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R).

SUCCESS: Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.)

Casey, the son of popular former Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey Sr. (D), followed his father’s centrist path to office.

The younger Casey, like his father, opposes abortion rights.

National Democrats cleared the Senate primary field for Casey, then the state treasurer, in 2006. He then throttled Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) by an 18-point margin.

FAILURE: Robin Carnahan (D)

Like Reid, former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) picked the wrong year to run for higher office.

The daughter of former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) and former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) and sister of then-Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) ran for an open Senate seat in 2010.

She faced then-Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who repeatedly tied her to President Obama and defeated her by a 13-point margin.

SUCCESS: Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah)

Matheson’s father was a popular governor, and he’s built on his legacy to win heavily Republican districts.

He has stayed in office for seven terms by maintaining one of the most conservative records of House Democrats, surviving tough primary and general elections in 2010 and winning a radically redrawn House seat in 2012 over Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love (R), a top GOP recruit. He’ll face a rematch with Love in 2014.

FAILURE: Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.)

The son of former Vice President Dan Quayle (R) needed the help of many of his father’s friends to win a heavily Republican House seat in 2010.

Redistricting combined his seat with fellow Rep. Dave Schweikert’s (R-Ariz.). Quayle was endorsed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), but narrowly lost a nasty primary.

SUCCESS: Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.)

Sometimes, family ties do make the difference.

Lipinski’s father, Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.), made a last-minute decision to retire in 2004, and he and other powerful Chicago Democrats chose his son to replace him on the ballot.

Lipinski has maintained a very conservative voting record for such a Democratic district, opposing abortion rights and gay marriage, but Chicago’s Democratic machine has helped protect him against serious primary challenges.

FAILURES: Joe and Jake Ford

Two of Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s (D-Tenn.) relatives unsuccessfully sought to replace him when he ran for the Senate in 2006.

Joe Ford, Harold’s cousin and longtime Rep. Harold Ford Sr.’s (D-Tenn.) nephew, finished a distant third behind Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who won the Democratic primary despite being white in a heavily black district.

Jake Ford, Harold Ford Jr.’s brother and a high school dropout, ran as an independent, losing the general election by 20 points.