Politics a family business for many U.S. candidates this year

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 15, 2014 10:22 AM

By Colleen Jenkins

(Reuters) - Fighting for his political survival in a race that could swing majority control of the U.S. Senate, Arkansas Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor is leaning on a political asset no amount of campaign money can buy.

His dad.

David Pryor, the popular former Arkansas governor and senator, is meeting with voters across the state and has appeared in a campaign ad, touting a family brand his son hopes will lure voters in a state President Barack Obama lost by 24 points in 2012.

"This is a state that should have two Republican senators given its inherent conservatism and the presidential politics," said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. But "Arkansas has really liked sending Pryors to the Senate."

The Pryors are hardly alone in making politics a family business. High-profile races across the United States feature vulnerable incumbents and first-time candidates relying in varying degree on the kind of political lineage that has helped elect members of the Kennedy, Clinton and Bush families.

Family ties bring built-in networks of campaign operatives and donors, as well as name recognition and credibility with voters. But political experts say while familiarity opens doors, it does not ensure a win.

"A name does only carry you so far," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It can get you halfway down the field, but you have to carry the ball the rest of the way yourself."

That proved true last Tuesday when political newcomer Clay Pell, the grandson of Rhode Island's longtime former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, finished third in the Democratic primary for the state's open governor's seat.

The younger Pell, who often invoked his late grandfather's name during the campaign, was initially perceived as a longshot but gained enough momentum to win nearly 27 percent of the vote.

"The name became very beneficial," said Kay Israel, a communication professor at Rhode Island College. "He was able to at least become viable in the public's mind."

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Legacy candidates are on ballots in competitive Senate races in Louisiana, Colorado, Kentucky and Alaska. A Bush is running at the state level in Texas. And the daughter of Florida's former U.S. Senator and Governor Bob Graham is seeking a congressional seat.

The well-known surnames carry the potential risk of casting the candidates as part of the political elite at a time when voters may prefer fresh faces. They also can evoke strong feelings that create challenges for a candidate.

In Georgia, where the bench of legacy candidates is especially deep with both nominees for the open U.S. Senate seat hailing from prominent families, Democratic state Senator Jason Carter is aiming to follow in his grandfather's footsteps to become governor.

But in a conservative state where many Republicans take a dim view of former President Jimmy Carter's liberal reputation, Jason Carter has distanced himself from the elder statesman on some issues. He supports the death penalty, for instance, while his grandfather wants it banned.

Republican Governor Nathan Deal's campaign pounced on the former president's role in securing donations for his grandson, accusing Jason Carter of "fundraising off his famous family name."

"Carter doesn't want to be associated with his grandfather's unpopular views in Georgia, but he wants it both ways by using the former president to fund-raise among liberals," Deal's campaign said this summer.

Mostly, political legacies are seen as useful as long as the candidate's forebears were successful.

The family brand has helped keep some candidates competitive in razor-tight races, particularly in Southern states where Democrats need to emphasize their local roots to combat the unpopularity of the national party.

In another Georgia race, first-time candidate Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, faces a tough task to become the state's first Democratic senator in 14 years. Polls show her Republican opponent, David Perdue, the cousin of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, with a slight edge.

Democrats view the seat as a possible pick-up as the party fights to keep control of the Senate, and Nunn's surname gave her an early boost in fundraising and positive media coverage, Duffy said.

"I don't think that would have happened if her name had been Michelle Smith," Duffy said.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)