Political Dynasties Fade in 2010

Family names like Kennedy, Dodd, Reid don?t register like they used toAP Photos/Reuters
Family names like Kennedy, Dodd, Reid don?t register like they used to

A Reid running in Nevada? As sure a proposition as a Dodd running in Connecticut.

That was then. But, now, some of the biggest brand names in politics are showing signs of growing stale.

In Massachusetts, the Kennedy Senate seat -- in the family for virtually half a century -- is set to be filled by someone not named Kennedy.

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In Connecticut, Sen. Chris Dodd -- himself the son of a long-serving senator -- was forced out of his re-election race by sagging poll numbers. In Nevada, the two Reids on the ballot -- Sen. Harry Reid, who's running for re-election, and son Rory, who is running for governor -- look like they're getting in each other's way.

"Right now, the insiders are on the outs," said John J. Pitney, a politics professor at California's Claremont McKenna College who focuses on Congress. "In an anti-incumbent climate, being the incumbent who's the son of an incumbent is probably not a good thing."

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Prominent political families still dominate in Congress; from the Udall cousins in the Senate to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (the daughter of a former House member), and from Rep. Mary Bono Mack (the widow of one former House member who's now married to another) to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the sixth Frelinghuysen to represent New Jersey in Congress.

Beau Biden stands a good chance of taking over his father's old Senate seat, in Delaware, should he choose to run.

Congressional races this year feature relative newcomers with familiar names including Rand Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; Ethan Hastert, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's son; and Paul Thurmond, the son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

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Yet the last election cycle saw both a Dole and a Sununu lose their re-election races. Former Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., ultimately joined his cousin Caroline Kennedy in choosing not to pursue Senate seats, after other family members suffered defeats in bids for higher office.

Perhaps nowhere are the complications of family ties more evident than in Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stands as perhaps the most endangered Democratic senator in the nation.

Famous Name No Guarantee

Son Rory Reid rode the family name to become chairman of the Clark County Commission. But now that he's running for governor, dad's coattails look like a drag, with the elder Reid's cratering approval ratings affecting the younger Reid's prospects.

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"This year, it's not that it's a mixed blessing; it's that we're going to find out how bad the family curse is," said Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada political analyst. "The issue of the two Reids cuts against both of them. They're hurting each other."

One lesson of recent years: While a family name can get a candidate an early advantage and maybe even help win an initial race or two, it's no guarantee of long-term success.

"Over time, you've got to demonstrate an ability to serve the people who elect you," said former Sen. John E. Sununu, R-N.H. "Like any other politician, some succeed, and some fail."

Sununu's famous name -- his father was governor of New Hampshire and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush -- gave him an early edge as he launched his political career. But it didn't save him from a Democratic sweep that ousted him from office in 2008.

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"A recognizable name may cause voters to take a second look when they first meet a candidate," the younger Sununu said. "But from a very early point in your career, you learn you've got to make the sale yourself."

Politics has been a family business since the nation's founding. One study, co-authored by a Brown University professor, found that 45 percent of the members of the first Congress, in 1789, had a relative who was also serving in Congress

Figures in recent Congresses have estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of senators and representatives have close relatives either formerly or currently in Congress, said Stephen Hess, a historian at the Brookings Institution who has studied political dynasties for decades.

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Dynasties -- from the Adamses to the Roosevelts to the now-forgotten Washburns, who represented five different states during spans of the 19th century -- come and go, Hess said. And too many people running with the same last name can ultimately rub voters the wrong way.

Step Up the Political Ladder

"They can get in each other's way, it's a tricky thing," Hess said. "Some families in a sense just run out of steam."

Generally, Hess said, a famous last name gives candidates a step up the political ladder. The children of governors or senators draw fundraising dollars and media attention that, all things being equal, another political neophyte might not, he said.

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But that doesn't always mean success. And in an anti-establishment era, the family name may not carry the save value.

"In general, those names are a benefit," said historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University. "But this is not one of those times. It gives challengers an opportunity. You can say, 'I don't have a big name, so vote for me.'"