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The wrong year to have a famous political name

By Aaron Blake

A famous political last name ain't what it used to be.

One budding political dynasty beat another Tuesday in the Wyoming governor's race as former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead, the grandson of former Gov. and Sen. Cliff Hansen, bested state House Speaker Colin Simpson, the son of beloved former Sen. Alan Simpson. (Simpson actually finished a disappointing fourth.)

Offspring of current and former politicians have been having a tough go of it this year, performing poorly in primaries and facing a difficult environment in which their last name is as often regarded by voters as a negative rather than a positive.

In addition to Simpson, Ben Quayle, the son of former Indiana Senate and Vice President Dan Quayle, has run into major problems in his bid for Arizona's 3rd district, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) son lost a primary in his old district and the sons of two well-known South Carolina pols-- former Gov. Carroll Campbell and former Sen. Strom Thurmond -- fell in the same congressional primary earlier this year.

Also, former President Richard Nixon's grandson, Chris Nixon Cox, is an underdog in his own House primary in New York, Tim James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, finished third in the Alabama GOP governor's primary; and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) son, Rory, is struggling even more than his dad in his governor campaign.

So what's at work here?

What's different now, explains political dynasties expert Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, is offspring of famous politicians are perhaps trading too much on their names -- including running in places far removed from their family's political roots.

"In some of these cases, some of these people tried to step up two steps and tried to move up higher than perhaps their name deserved at that point," Hess said.

With such a wide-open environment, it's hard to blame ambitious sons and daughters of politicians for jumping at the chance. But without having run for office before, they're finding the competition stiff in key House, Senate and governor's races.

The prime example right now is Quayle's candidacy in Arizona. After sheepishly admitting to writing for a vulgar and sexually themed website called Dirty Scottsdale, he put out an over-the-top ad calling President Obama the "worst president in history" and threatening to "knock the hell out of" Washington.

The ad (combined with Quayle's somewhat awkward personal style) has led to spoofs and plenty of criticism.

Quayle had been seen as a favorite to replace retiring Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), but his fate is now uncertain.

When it comes to other would-be dynasties who have run in primaries already this year, the record is dire.

The sons of Campbell and Thurmond both lost by double digits in an open House primary against state Rep. Tim Scott, and then Scott beat Paul Thurmond by 36 points in the runoff.

Simpson's 16 percent of the vote last night wasn't even the lowest for a scion running for governor. That dubious distinction goes to Pete Domenici Jr. (R), who took 7 -- s-e-v-e-n -- percent in a five-candidate field in New Mexico. Domenici Jr., the son of former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), found himself on the wrong end of some lampooning after a charisma-free announcement speech.

The younger Reid, who is currently the chairman of the Clark County Commission, and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (D), the son of a former governor, both trail badly in their respective governor's races in Nevada and New Mexico. The most recent polling has each down double digits.

A lot of sons of Senators are taking passes on races too.

The son of Vice President Joe Biden, Beau (D), opted not to run for Senate this year. Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) -- all of whom are the sons of Senators -- are all leaving Congress. (The first two are retiring, the third was beaten at a state party convention earlier this year.)

Only a few political heirs are looking like potential winners at this point led by Ron Paul's son, Rand (R), who leads the Kentucky governor's race, and former Gov. Mel Carnahan's daughter, Robin (D), who is in a tight battle with Rep. Roy Blunt (R) in the Missouri Senate race. Former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the son of a former senator and governor, is attempting a political comeback by running for governor as an independent.

Also running as an independent is Florida gubernatorial candidate Bud Chiles, the son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles (D). At this point, he looks like little more than a potential spoiler.

With incumbents struggling this year, it probably shouldn't be surprising that their dynasties are too. But even considering the environment, well-heeled political families are running some pretty shoddy campaigns.

Considering the exits of the Kennedys, the Dodds, the Bayhs and other losing sons of well-known politicians, it seems a pretty distinct possibility that political dynasties will be on the wane when the calendar hits 2011.

By Aaron Blake  | August 18, 2010; 4:58 PM ET
Categories:  Governors, House, Senate  
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