The Name of the Game Isn’t Just Money

by John Lawrence

One would have to be a fool – or apparently, a member of the Supreme Court majority in the Citizens United decision – not to be appalled by the surfeit of lucre that is poisoning America’s politics. A potentially-related issue – the tendency for high political office to revert to those with familiar names – also suggests a retooling of our democracy is worth considering.

On the question of money, there is little debate. In many of the key Senate races being contested next month, over half of the reported “independent” money has been donated by … well, we don’t know, because thanks to the Supreme Court, the names of the contributors are anonymous. So as the money pours into states like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana and others, totaling tens of millions of dollars, we have no idea who is bankrolling the race to control the Senate.

What we do know is that outside spending has grown from $52 million in the 2000 cycle to over $1 billion in the 2012 cycle, and likely much more this year. Two years ago, 100 of the richest people in America anonymously gave $339 million to Super PACs. This year, reports indicate, several independent groups are shedding the pretense of “educating” the public in multiple states, and are focusing instead on supporting or opposing a single candidate – all within the Constitution as interpreted by 5 of the Court’s 9 Justices.

It is also interesting to note that in a number of those key races, while the names of the contributors are unknown, the names of the candidates are very familiar, and not simply because they currently occupy seats in the U.S. Senate. In Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and Georgia, Senate seats are held or are being sought by politicians with names made famous by their predecessors.

  • In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich, son of former at-large Congressman Nick Begich, is in a tight race to retain his seat;
  • In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor, son of former Governor and Senator David Pryor, is similarly fighting for his political life.
  • In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall, son of longtime Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, is seeking a second term.
  • In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu, daughter of former New Orleans Mayor (and HUD Secretary) Moon Landrieu, is seeking a third term. Her brother, Mitch, is the mayor of New Orleans, but her service precedes his election.
  • And in Georgia, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is running for dad’s old Senate seat.

Nor are these the only famous offspring on the November ballots, which include such familiar names as California Gov. Jerry Brown (son of Pat), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario), and Georgia gubernatorial wannabe Jason Carter, grandson of former Governor and President Jimmy. Other famous scions serve in the Senate as well. These members of venerable political dynasties include Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey, West Virginia’s Sen. John D. Rockefeller, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (daughter of former Governor and Senator Frank), and New Mexico’s Sen. Tom Udall (son of former Interior Secretary and Arizona Congressman Stewart Udall, and cousin of Mark).

The House of Representatives is overflowing with famous surnames, including two of my former employers whose parents were elected officials, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (father and brother) and George Miller (father and grandfather). Some came to seats that had been immediately occupied by family members, such as Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), both of whom succeeded their spouses. As recently as the 1970s, half of all women in the House had succeeded their deceased spouses, as did a number of appointed women senators including Muriel Humphrey (widow of Hubert) and Elaine Edwards (wife of Louisiana Gov., and current House candidate, Edwin Edwards). Other senators were appointed to capitalize on their family name in efforts to gain or hold a Senate seat including Jean Carnahan (whose husband, Governor Mel, of Missouri, died during the campaign which he won, though deceased).

Democrats seem to have a particular penchant for running familiar names for House seats. Today, those occupying seats previously held by a parent or spouse include Niki Tsongas (MA), Andre Carson (IN), Lacy Clay (MO), John Dingell (MI), Joe Kennedy (MA), John Sarbanes (MD), Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA), and Donald Payne, Jr. (NJ). There are Republicans, too, like Bill Shuster (PA) who inherited not only the seat of his father, Bud, but his gavel as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, too.

Others, like Sam Farr (CA) and Janice Hahn (CA), had famous parents in state legislatures or local government. And Rush Holt (NJ) had a father who served as a senator, although from West Virginia, and decades before his son won a House seat with little benefit from the family name. It also bears noting that, in all likelihood, one surname will continue to hold a House seat following the departure of a famous legislator as Deborah Dingell is running to succeed husband John, the House dean who is retiring after 60 years, having succeeded his father in 1955.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the progeny, siblings, or spouses of officeholders seeking public office themselves. Indeed, our history is filled with Adams’, Kennedys, Bushes, Roosevelts, Tydings, Longs, Harrisons, Lodges, Tafts and many more whose surnames often provided important advantages in their quests for public office. Coming from a family of officeholders often brings with it a respect for the office born of exposure to the rigors and responsibilities that elected office demands. Often, the achievements of the second generation politicians have eclipsed those of their solon ancestors.

It is worth noting, however, that the combination of relying on famous names and the availability of large amounts of money from undisclosed sources represents something other than an ideal illustration of a democracy in action. As noted, bearing a prominent name in no way suggests a lack of qualification for office or predicts underperformance in office. Often, quite the opposite. One would merely hope that voters are selecting candidates independent of familiar names that are promoted by heavy spending from anonymous sources.

There seems no end to the political name game, and even former First Lady Barbara Bush has indicated a desire to see some new names on the bumper stickers and buttons. If either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush (or both) seeks the presidency in 2016, they will perpetuate an astonishing record that has seen a Bush or a Clinton seeking or winning a place on every national ticket since 1980 excepting only 2012. “I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people,” Mrs. Bush noted, suggesting the nation should be able to produce “more than two or three families to run for high office.” The probability is that Mrs. Bush, and we, will likely have to wait some time for that string to be broken.