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The United States Of Dynasty: Boom Times For Political Families

Liz Cheney walks off the stage with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, after addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2010.
Cliff Owen
Liz Cheney walks off the stage with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, after addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2010.

Another day, another political dynasty.

This latest one is taking shape in Wyoming, where Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, announced Tuesday that she's challenging incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi in the 2014 Republican primary.

Her announcement is a fitting prelude to the next four years, when voters will witness America's political royalty in its full glory.

Cheney is just one of a gaggle of legacy candidates running for the Senate next year. In the South, Sens. Mary Landrieu, daughter of the former New Orleans mayor and sister to the current mayor; and Mark Pryor, the son of former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, are both seeking re-election. Out west, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, both sons of congressmen, are also vying for another term. So is Udall's cousin, Tom, who is New Mexico's senator and himself the son of a congressman.

In fact, pick any place on the map and you're likely to find dynasty politics in full bloom. In Texas, George P. Bush, son of the ex-Florida governor and grandson of a president, is running for the statewide office of land commissioner. In Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, a senator's son, is running for his second term as governor.

And that's just a sampling.

The scope will become even broader as the 2016 presidential race kicks off. Consider the current top prospects: the son and brother of a former president (Jeb Bush); the wife of a former president (Hillary Clinton); the son of a governor who was once a presidential contender (Andrew Cuomo); and the son of a congressman who ran for president three times (Rand Paul).

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Until Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, every winning ticket since 1980 featured a son of a United States senator or president.

"Americans were born in rebellion, but they crave connection and familiarity. The temptation of dynastic politics may be a contradictory note in our national character, but it's perfectly explicable in human nature," says Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP political consultant. "People look for signifiers that give them a quick shorthand to a candidate's views and character, and because candidates are known generally more by who they are than what they advocate, a famous family name becomes a cornerstone of political branding."

The practice of political inheritance is as old as the nation. In his book America's Political Dynasties, scholar Stephen Hess counted at least 700 families in which two or more members had served in Congress since 1774 — and that was back in 1966, when the book was first published.

One of the most famous American political houses, the Kennedys, counts six politicians with service in the House or Senate, including current House freshman Joe Kennedy III.

There's nothing inherently wrong with dynasty politics. If anything, it underscores the deep commitment of some of the nation's most prominent families to public service.

But it comes at a cost. There's no denying that political scions often have an advantage over candidates of lesser lineage.

"They begin with near universal name identification. They begin with a huge rolodex. They begin with a huge understanding of how politics works," says former Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith, whose long-shot 2004 campaign for Congress against a scion of a prominent political family was the subject of an award-winning documentary film. "Are any of these skills necessary to become a great public servant? No, but if you understand the game, you may end up spending less time banging your head against the wall learning how things work."

Sometimes, congressional seats end up in the same family's hands for decades — even when the talent and charisma skips a generation.

"My experience coming from a state with lots of prominent political families is that in many of these cases, the political talent and policy depth so evident in the first generation isn't always present in the second generation, in part because it's not as necessary to fuel the rise," says Smith, who's now a professor of politics and advocacy at The New School in New York.

There's another notable downside of dynasty politics: It can fuel voter resentment and mistrust of the motives of the political class. One of the most eye-catching examples took place a decade ago in Alaska, where in December 2002 the state's newly elected Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, appointed his daughter Lisa to fill the vacancy created by his resignation from the Senate.

The episode sparked a backlash that ultimately led to the rise of one of the more successful populist politicians of the modern era — Sarah Palin, who knocked off Frank Murkowski in a 2006 primary election colored by his decision to hand his Senate seat to his daughter.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Charles Mahtesian is NPR's Politics Editor.