The grandsons, daughters, nephews, and nieces of former political leaders littered the electoral field in 2014. But with few exceptions, legacy candidates did not fare well in the midterms Tuesday — which doesn't exactly bode well for a handful of anticipated 2016 candidates (Bush, Clinton, we're looking at you).
Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, lost his bid for governor of Georgia. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Co.), son of former Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, failed to hold onto his Senate seat in Colorado. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the unsuccessful Democratic challenger to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky, is the daughter of the former chairman of the state Democratic Party. Michelle Nunn, who lost her bid to become Georgia’s first Democratic senator elected since 2000, is the daughter of Sam Nunn, a former Republican senator from the same state.
The list continues: Sen. Mark Pryor (D) followed in his father’s footsteps to become one of Arkansas’ senators. He lost to a Republican challenger today. Alaskan Senator Mark Begich (D) failed to retain his seat; his father used to be one of Alaska’s Congressional representatives. The niece of a former senator from Florida, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) lost her seat to North Carolina’s House Speaker Thom Tillis. And Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, is now set for a December runoff election that she is expected to lose.
For a country that prides itself on a meritocratic ideal, the United States has long been host to a sizable number of dynastic political families, both at the state and national levels. Indeed, during the 2008 election, one commentator noted that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s greatest asset was his name — “It may rhyme with Osama. But it is not Clinton.”
The Guardian, Britain’s left-leaning mainstream newspaper, pointed out the tension between this American image and this election’s deluge of candidates with family members in politics:
[T]hat [dynastic] pattern runs counter to the dominant American mythology of meritocracy, class fluidity and personal reinvention embedded in the sweet spot of the American dream: the notion that anyone can make it if they try hard and fly right, regardless of their upbringing…The electoral reality, however, suggests a narrow plutocracy in which the privilege of birth outranks ideology, charisma or achievement.
Meritocratic ideals may define how Americans like to think about themselves, but today’s political topography is anything but friendly to meritocracy. Given the tremendous amounts of money that candidates now need to raise to even have a chance at a Congressional seat, is it any wonder that those candidates who already have the exposure to fundraising networks — and often times, family wealth — would be more likely to make it out of the gate and into the electoral field than your average Joe (or Jody)?
Commentators have also stressed the importance of the family brand for legacy candidates. Ready-made name recognition is a huge boost up for a political candidate, particularly when your constituents still have a positive association with your father’s time in office. (Yes, it usually is the father who is the elder statesman in the family — cue statistics about the past and present underrepresentation of women in politics.)
If you look at their campaign ads, this year’s candidates certainly thought their familial ties could help. Landrieu had a spot early in the cycle in which her father endorses her as a “hard-headed” fighter who stands up for Louisiana. In one of her ads, Nunn tells voters that she tries to follow her illustrious father’s example on the basketball courts, albeit not in politics. She then goes on to describe the elder Nunn as a “great role model.”
And then Southerners just like dynasties, which explains why so many legacy candidates are attempting to sell themselves to Southern constituencies. Or at least, that is was Peter Bourne, a former campaign director for President Jimmy Carter, postulates.
So if belonging to a political dynasty is such a big leg up, why did the midterm election disappoint so many legacy candidates?
To listen to The National Review, the legacy candidates (who were predominantly Democrats pushing back against a Republican headwind in red or purple states) only managed to make their campaigns relevant because of their family connections:
The good news for Republicans is that the political legacies were just about the only thing keeping Democrats competitive in many states that are purple but trending red. Democrats already have lost their “blue dogs,” and now their silver spoons may be worthless, too.
This argument, of course, minimizes or discounts entirely the sweeping demographic shifts in Southern states like Georgia and polling data that shows most Americans agree with Democrats more on policy issues and view their Republican counterparts in Congress less favorably. It also denies the structural elements of midterm elections that traditionally have made electoral success elusive for the party in control of the White House.
The point, it seems, we can draw from Tuesday’s election results is that a dynastic tie is just one of many tools in a candidate’s campaign toolkit. It can play a role in certain contests, for better or for worse, depending on the connection and the context. But it’s just that — an added support that can influence how voters perceive a candidate, not a be-all, end-all election winning strategy.
This is important to remember as we move towards the 2016 presidential contest (Sigh. I know), given how likely it is that another Clinton and another Bush could throw their hats in the ring for the presidential nominations of their respective parties. As run-of-the-mill voters, we probably cannot even begin to imagine the benefits that being a part of the Clinton network or the Bush political machine could be to a candidate.
But this year’s midterms show that belonging to a political dynasty does not guarantee victory. You still have to run a good campaign and position yourself as a candidate who will take proactive steps to listen to and address her constituents’ needs.
Perhaps that's too optimistic. Maybe all you really need is millions in the bank. Daddy, can you write a check?
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