Family Ties a Mixed Blessing for Red-State Democrats

Beth Reinhard

She is the daughter of a civil-rights-championing former mayor of New Orleans and the sister of the city’s popular current executive. He is the son of a former senator and governor known for advocating for the rights of taxpayers and the elderly.

Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are two of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in 2014, but the deep roots of their families in their home states could serve as bulwarks in a Republican-friendly midterm.

Carpetbaggers, beware.

“If anyone is suited to swim against the tide, it’s these multigenerational politicians in states where knowing people matters,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, who ran an outside group that helped reelect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 2010.

Landrieu and Pryor stand out as Democrats campaigning in states that President Obama lost by landslides—17 and 24 points, respectively—in the 2012 presidential election. Among the other Senate Democrats with family connections that could help them get through tough reelection campaigns: Mark Begich of Alaska, son of Rep. Nick Begich, who died in a mysterious plane crash; Mark Udall of Colorado, son of the late Rep. Morris "Mo" Udall and cousin of Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, wife of longtime Democratic operative and former U.S. Attorney William Shaheen.

Traditionally, family ties are one of politics' greatest blessings, bestowing lucky offspring with a ready-made name brand, grassroots support, and a fundraising network. Former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.—son of another popular Indiana Democrat, former Sen. Birch Bayh—once coined the phrase “legacy caucus” to refer to the senators representing seats once held by their fathers, including Pryor; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and former Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.; Bob Bennett, R-Utah; and Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.

But the antiestablishment tea-party movement and the public’s disdain for Washington can elevate fresh faces and outsider status over the prospect of family dynasties.

Consider the likely campaign by the 37-year-old son of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who announced his retirement plans last week. Brendan Johnson, appointed by President Obama to serve as the state’s U.S. attorney, has never held elective office before. Eyeing a pickup opportunity in a state Obama lost by 18 points, Republicans are crying nepotism.

“In South Dakota, we say it’s OK to pass on your farm to your heirs but it doesn’t apply to Senate seats,” said South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Craig Lawrence. “Of course we are going to make this an issue.”

Speaking of keeping things in the family, the “Draft Brendan Johnson for U.S. Senate Campaign” announced a new endorsement last Thursday: Democratic strategist Nathan Daschle—the son of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. South Dakota Democratic Chairman Ben Nesselhuf rejected the possibility of Republicans turning Brendan’s last name into a liability.

“They will raise the charges of nepotism on Brendan no matter what he chooses to do, because he’s a serious threat,” he said. “Anyone who meets him for three minutes will see that charge lose steam because he’s incredibly well qualified. He’s one of the best campaigners I’ve ever seen, partly because he grew up on the campaign trail.”

The same could be said of Pryor, whose father, David, is an institution in Arkansas after more than three decades in public office. The elder Pryor was by his son’s side—along with former President Clinton and Gov. Mike Beebe—when he formally launched his reelection campaign in mid-March. The early splash was warranted. His former Democratic colleague, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, lost her bid for a third term in 2010, and last year Republicans won all four of the state’s House seats and took control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

The conservative Club for Growth has already made Pryor a target, airing a television ad that reminds voters he backed Obama’s health care plan. “He’s supposed to be our senator, but Mark Pryor is really Barack Obama’s best ally in Arkansas,” says the spot.

Pryor has tried to demonstrate his independence from the administration in recent weeks by declining to back same-sex marriage and sweeping gun-control legislation. His hope is that Arkansas voters will remember his family’s familiar surname—not the unpopular president’s—when they go to the polls in 2014.

“I am my father’s son. Everybody knows that,” Pryor said. “Arkansans know public service is what motivates me, and that’s part of my dad’s legacy.”

He added: “I feel like I just need to be myself and run my race and be the kind of senator I’ve always been. You’re not going to see me change. I’m going to be the same old Mark Pryor.”

Like Pryor, who has held public office for 23 years, Landrieu is becoming a brand name in her own right, separate from her family’s coattails. In 1996, after 10 years in state office, she became the first woman from Louisiana elected to a full term in the Senate.

The path to public service was paved by her father, Maurice "Moon" Landrieu, who served in Congress in the 1960s and as mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s. He was best known as a trailblazer for civil rights, earning the loyalty of the city’s large African-American community. He was one of the few white state lawmakers who voted against the "hate bills" that aimed to stop school desegregation. 

“I’m very proud to have a family name that represents integrity and good government and inclusiveness,” Landrieu said. “I believe it’s been an asset in every one of my races.”

Landrieu won the black vote overwhelmingly in her last campaign in 2008. But in the 2014 midterm election, black voters are expected to make up a smaller share of the electorate, closer to 25 percent, than the 29 percent they represented during Obama’s historic 2008 election. Turnout will be pivotal in New Orleans, where her brother, Mitch, a former lieutenant governor of the state, was elected mayor in 2010. His popularity—a recent poll by the automated Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that 49 percent of the state has a favorable view of him, to only 26 percent with an unfavorable view—is a plus for the senator.

“Because the black turnout will not be as strong, she has to get more of that middle-of-the-road white vote, and that’s getting harder and harder in the South,” said John Maginnis, who publishes LaPolitics Weekly, an e-mail newsletter. “Republicans will try to nationalize the election, but if she can keep it localized, she’s pretty hard to beat. It could be frustrating for Republicans.”

Potential GOP challengers include Reps. John Fleming and Bill Cassidy. In 2011, Republicans increased their majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature and captured all statewide constitutional offices. "Louisiana has moved much more to the right since Landrieu's last election," said Republican political consultant Jason Hebert, "and people seem a lot more interested in a candidate's voting record and issue positions than their family name or political cache.”

The family business once held no allure for Alaska’s Begich, who was only 10 years old when his father was never heard from again after a plane crash. Also on board was House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana. The bodies of the four passengers and the plane’s wreckage were never found.

“I didn’t want to run in that business that took my father away from me,” said Begich, who always saw himself as a businessman. He said he ran for city council at age 26 “as a fluke” because his representative had failed to pave the road in front of his house. He won, and the road never got paved on his watch “because it would have been a conflict,” he said.

Forty years after his father’s death, Begich still meets constituents who will bring him a memento, such as a campaign brochure or a copy of one of his speeches. In such a sparsely populated and hard-to-navigate rural state, voters remember when a lawmaker comes to their neck of the words. Begich's father was also known for his leadership in passing legislation that allocated 40 million acres to Alaskan natives, who currently make up about 17 percent of the state’s population.

“People in Alaska still remember my father, no question about it,” said Begich, who defeated 40-year incumbent Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in 2008. “When my mother campaigned for me, she received a hero’s welcome.”

For a Democratic senator running in a state where Obama lost by 14 percentage points, blood has to run thick.