By KEN THOMAS and ANDREW DeMILLO
FILE – In this file photo taken Nov. 5, 2008, former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., comments in Little Rock, Ark. Pryor or members of his family have held statewide office for all but two years since 1974 in Arkansas. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Sen. Mark Pryor likes to tell voters that he always puts Arkansas first, borrowing the campaign slogan associated with his family for decades. In Wyoming, Liz Cheney bets that her famous father’s name will be gold in her Senate race. And in Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu counts on her kin’s New Orleans ties to help lift her to re-election in a tough race.
Family does matter in the runup to next fall’s Senate elections: Candidates are wielding famous political pedigrees in a number of races that could determine whether Democrats maintain control in the 2014 elections.
Famous last names mean automatic name recognition and, typically, an easier time raising money. Beyond that, and 15 months before Election Day, it’s unclear whether family ties will translate into votes next fall.
For several Democrats, their deep family roots in conservative-leaning states could help them make the case that they are in touch with local values and act in constituents’ best interests as they seek to rebut Republican arguments that they are nothing more than rubber stamps for President Barack Obama’s policies. Yet, with congressional approval ratings dipping to record lows, a political pedigree also could turn into a liability if voters decide they’d rather have some new blood in the Senate.
History is filled with famous political families with national images — the Kennedys, Rockefellers and Bushes are among them — and there are similar political dynasties in individual states across the nation.
This year, family ties figure prominently in Arkansas, where Pryor’s father, David, served the state as governor and U.S. senator, and in Louisiana, where Landrieu’s father, Moon, was New Orleans’ mayor during the 1970s and her brother, Mitch, now leads the city. In Wyoming, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s eldest daughter has galvanized the state’s political scene by seeking the seat of Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican favored by his party’s establishment.
In the cases of Pryor and Landrieu, Republicans say voters are savvy enough to judge sitting senators on their performance rather than their pedigree.
“Name ID has helped Landrieu and Pryor during their careers, but they are pretty far along into their own careers now and they have a voting record,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist and former aide to the National Senatorial Campaign Committee.
John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster, counters that it will be more difficult for Republicans to attach the Democratic incumbents to Obama next year because the president will not be on the ballot. He said many children of prominent politicians, especially in places less favorable to Democrats, have been successful by sticking to the mold of their parents — not the party’s leader.
“There’s always this need to distinguish yourself, that you’re not part of the national party cabal,” Anzalone said.
Among the other Senate races featuring politicians with pedigrees:
—Alaska: First-term Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has been targeted by Republicans in a state that hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since 1964. Begich is the son of the late Rep. Nick Begich, who served in Congress before his October 1972 death in a plane crash.
—Georgia: Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is trying to win an open seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in more than a decade.
—West Virginia: Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of former three-term Gov. Arch Moore, is heavily favored to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Capito’s father, now 90, pleaded guilty to political corruption charges in 1990 and served 2½ years in federal prison. Democrats have yet to field a strong candidate.
At Kentucky’s annual political gathering called Fancy Farm, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell took less than a minute to take a verbal shot at his Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. She is the daughter of Jerry Lundergan, Kentucky’s former Democratic Party chairman.
“I want to say how nice it is … to see Jerry Lundergan back in the game,” McConnell told the raucous crowd. “Like the loyal Democrat he is, he’s taking orders from the Obama campaign on how to run his daughter’s campaign.”
In Arkansas, Pryor doesn’t try to avoid his father’s name or legacy. When Mark Pryor first ran for the Senate in 2002, the elder Pryor was such a presence that Tim Hutchinson, the Republican incumbent, complained that he had “debated David Pryor more than I have Mark Pryor.” In a recent interview, Pryor mused that he didn’t know “why the Pryors always get themselves into big Senate races,” comparing his current campaign against Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to some of his father’s old Senate battles.
Pryor remains one of the Senate’s most endangered incumbents as Cotton argues that voters should elect a senator “who, when he says Arkansas comes first, actually means it.”
Republicans acknowledge that the Pryor name and network of supporters will give the incumbent an advantage that fellow Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln didn’t have in her unsuccessful re-election bid in 2010. To address that, GOP strategists say Cotton will need to make voters associate Pryor’s name more with Washington and the Obama administration than his father’s legacy.
“The name is a name that has been held in good stead, but now it has been linked with a name, Obama, that is not in Arkansas,” state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said earlier this year. “I think it has fallen out of favor with the average Arkansas voter.”
Thomas reported from Washington.