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Candidates Look to Make Family Legacies in Congress

Candidates Look to Make Family Legacies in Congress
Murkowski, right, and her father are among those who claim a family legacy in Congress. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 11 a.m. | When nine-term Democratic Rep. Lois Capps announced her retirement, all eyes turned to a potential successor: her daughter.

A nonprofit consultant and community activist who has never run for office, Laura Burton Capps has long been seen as a possible successor to her mother. (Her father Walter Capps first held the seat, but died after just nine months in office. Lois Capps won a special election to succeed him.)

The congresswoman’s daughter recently confirmed she is seriously considering a bid for the now-open Santa Barbara-based 24th District. If she opts to run, she would join the many politicians who have sought to follow in their parents’ footsteps and ascend to Congress — and she might be one of a handful who could attempt the feat this cycle.

“The reality is that the names carry weight because they send signals,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who has worked for a number of candidates from political families.

At least three other politicians could try and carry on the family legacy in the House and Senate this cycle.

GOP state Sen. Darin LaHood is the odds-on favorite to win a summer special election for the vacated seat of disgraced ex-Rep. Aaron Schock in Illinois. It’s a seat his dad, former Rep. Ray LaHood, held for more than a decade before leaving in 2009 to take a job as secretary of Transportation.

In Maryland, Rep. John Sarbanes could try and run for the Old Line State’s open Senate seat. His father, Paul Sarbanes, spent more than three decades in Congress, almost all of them in the Senate.

And in Texas, former state Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr. may run against GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold, who unexpectedly unseated the elder Ortiz in 2010.

In all, 18 current members had a mother or father who served in Congress before them, according to CQ Roll Call data, with eight directly succeeding their parent. That’s a drop from 22 in the 113th Congress, thanks to a handful of retirements and members who were defeated last fall.

Members who had a parent serve before them include Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., whose father, great-great grandfather and great-great-great-uncle served in the House and Senate before him. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, D-Mass., is the son of former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and the grandson of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. In the Senate, Lisa Murkowski was appointed to succeed her father Frank Murkowski — by the man himself when he was elected Alaska’s governor.

Running for Congress from a popular political family provides distinct advantages.

For starters, name recognition. There’s also access to the family Rolodex, and a base of donors right out of the gate. Endorsements are usually not far behind.

“Someone of that background typically … without a mom being an elected official would have a very limited ability to come into a race and be in a strong position to win,” California pollster Ben Tulchin said of Laura Capps’ potential.

The younger Capps has the added advantage of being married to Bill Burton, a top Democratic operative who served as deputy press secretary for President Barack Obama after a high-level role in the 2008 campaign.

Not all children of former members make it all the way.

Joshua Hastert, son of former longtime Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, lost a 2010 GOP primary to now-Rep. Randy Hultgren for his father’s old seat in Illinois.

Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, failed to win an open Senate seat in Georgia last cycle, despite sharing a last name with her popular father.

Weston Wamp failed to win a race for the second cycle in a row in Tennessee’s 3rd District — territory his dad, former Rep. Zach Wamp, held for 14 years before vacating the seat for an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2010. Wamp, in his mid-20s during his first bid, was criticized for trying to run for Congress at a young age without substantive experience.

But one child of a former member did pull off a win last cycle.

Freshman Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Fla., the daughter of Bob Graham, a popular governor-turned-senator from the Sunshine State, unseated a Republican in a GOP-leaning district, even in a bad year for her party.

Graham and her father campaigned together. But she also ran a near-perfect race, which earned her accolades from Democrats, who immediately mentioned her as a possible future Senate candidate.

“I have never assumed or expected anything because I have a wonderful father and a wonderful family,” Graham told CQ Roll Call on Capitol Hill recently. “And so to me, it was getting to the point where I could stand in front of the people and ask them to support me and what I brought to the race and now what I bring to my service in Congress. It just happens to be that I have a terrific father.”

In fact, some members say they had to work harder to prove to voters they were qualified for the job and were not simply trying to walk into a seat because of their notable surname.

“You have to dispel those notions by showing people that you really have something to offer the community, that you’re just not doing it on name recognition,” Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., told CQ Roll Call. Payne succeeded his late father, Rep. Donald M. Payne, in a 2012 special election after his death.

Anzalone, who did the polling for Graham, said her campaign stood on its own footing, only using her father in one ad.

“It doesn’t always translate; you still have to run a good campaign,” Anzalone said. “But it is more than just the price of admission; it gives you an extra drink ticket, too.”

Ed. note: This post was updated to reflect Capps’ current employment.


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