A Steady Flow of Political Royal Blood to Congress
Hill dynasties don’t last so many generations any more, but plenty of family members still try to stay in electoral business
Saturday’s wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is creating another surge of American royal mania, and with a particular twist — besotted chatter about their offspring someday running for Congress, or even president, while remaining in the line of succession to the British throne.
It’s a fanciful notion, regardless of whether the Los Angeles actress retains dual citizenship after she passes her British citizenship test, because the Constitution prevents titled nobles from taking federal office.
But the larger point is this: The U.S. electorate remains as fascinated as ever with influential families on both sides of the Atlantic and, perhaps as a result, has only occasionally declined to expand the power of the clans that have sought to foster an American political royal lineage over the past two centuries. People named Adams, Harrison, Taft, Roosevelt, Rockefeller and, more recently, Kennedy or Bush have won far more elections than they’ve lost.
The long roster of such families that have succeeded in national politics for multiple generations hasn’t grown in a while. But the number who have made electioneering part of their bloodlines, if only for a generation or two, continues to expand — and is doing so again this midterm election year. Half a dozen close kin to current or former members of Congress hope to come to the Hill themselves in January, and a few of them might actually get there.
Their arrival would keep the size of the informal Family Business Caucus in line with where it has been for at least two decades — between 4 percent and 6 percent of the total membership.
The current share is 5 percent. That’s because the fathers of 17 current House members and four senators preceded them in Congress, as did the husbands of three House Democrats and the grandmother of another. Four House members followed their siblings in office.
Two House Republican committee chairmen with long family political legacies are retiring this fall without any relatives hoping to succeed them. Bill Shuster’s father, Bud, also helmed the Transportation Committee and first brought a central Pennsylvania congressional seat into the family fold in 1972. Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen’s father represented a similar New Jersey district for two decades; their forbearers include Frelinghuysens who were senators in the 1790s, 1820s, 1870s and 1920s.
One congressional son and one congressional sibling are in tough bids for re-election this fall. Duncan Hunter, who succeeded his namesake in a San Diego House seat a decade ago, is imperiled by a federal criminal investigation of his finances. Fellow Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, who replaced his brother Mike in a suburban Philadelphia seat two years ago, is endangered by district lines newly drawn to take in more Democrats.
In the blood
By far the most prominent, and likeliest, congressional bloodline beneficiary this year is Greg Pence, who won the primary this month in the safely Republican southeastern Indiana district once held by his younger brother Vice President Mike Pence. Leveraging the fundraising capacity of the family name was the central feature of a campaign in which the antiques mall operator and onetime convenience store executive avoided reporters and declined to debate opponents in his first bid for office.
The winner of the GOP primary in the open, and normally reliably Republican, district covering southern West Virginia is state House Majority Whip Carol Miller. Her late father was Samuel L. Devine, the House Republican Conference chairman when he retired in 1980 after a 22-year run representing central Ohio.
The next most viable kin-turned-candidate is from Michigan, ground zero in congressional mini-dynasties these days. (In 2012, Dan Kildee took the House seat his uncle Dale had held since 1976; two years later, fellow Democrat Debbie Dingell became the first congresswoman to directly succeed a living husband; John Jr., had succeed his own father back in 1955.)
This time, the departure of Rep. Sander M. Levin — who, just like his younger brother former Sen. Carl Levin, picked his 36th year in Congress for retirement — creates an opening for the suburban Detroit congressman’s older son, Andy, a green energy entrepreneur and former union official. His fundraising and name recognition have made him an early front-runner in the August Democratic primary, which will be tantamount to election.
A family feud in Detroit, though, has lengthened the odds someone named Conyers will succeed John Conyers Jr., who resigned in December as the longest-serving House Democrat after several former aides accused him of sexual misconduct. The disgraced former member has endorsed his son, John III, a total political neophyte. The ex-congressman’s great nephew, Ian, at 29 the youngest state senator in Michigan history, is maneuvering to keep his cousin off the ballot. Six others, several with more political seasoning and established political bases, are also running.
Another crowded field, in eastern New Hampshire, now includes Levi Sanders, who describes himself as an anti-establishment progressive Democrat in the mold of his father, Bernie, the Vermont senator and presidential aspirant. But he faces carpetbagger complaints and the reality that several better-known and better-funded candidates in both parties are seeking the politically competitive open House seat.
Two descendants of former House members from California are also seeking to return a seat in Congress to the family trousseau, but neither is seriously in the hunt: David McKeon, a county GOP chairman in Nevada and a son of Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, and Levi Tillemann, a Colorado clean energy consultant and grandson of the late Democrat Tom Lantos.
Watch: Which House Races Are the Parties Targeting? Look to the Money, the TV Ad Money
Going for the record
None of this year’s crop of viable namesake candidates would extend family political power into a third generation, which would meet the informal definition of a congressional dynasty.
(The longevity record is shared by the Frelinghuysens; the Breckenridges of Kentucky, who produced a vice president, a pair of senators and six House members between 1790 and 1978; and the Bayards of Delaware, who sent six successive generations to the Senate ending in 1928.)
In fact, once Rodney Frelinghuysen departs this winter there will be only one member of Congress close to their company: 37-year-old Joseph P. Kennedy III, who has extended the run of the nation’s most storied Democratic dynasty into a fifth generation. (At the turn of the 20th century, his great-great-grandfather John F. Fitzgerald was also a congressman from Massachusetts; the intervening generations include five others who did time at the Capitol.)
The most prominent existing Republican dynasty, meanwhile, has been carried into a fourth generation by 42-year-old George P. Bush. In order to keep alive a political future said to include aspirations for the Senate or beyond, he broke with the rest of the family this spring and aligned himself with President Donald Trump, which helped him survive a serious primary challenge from the right and secure safe passage to a second term in the powerful post of Texas land commissioner.
Few obituaries in April of his blunt-spoken grandmother, Barbara, omitted her famous “We’ve had enough Bushes” declaration in discouraging her son Jeb from seeking the office held by his father and his older brother.
But she just-as-candidly conceded “I changed my mind!” as soon as the former Florida governor, George P.’s father, nonetheless got ready to run in 2016.
It was a reminder that dynastic impulses die hard in politics — although perhaps no more so than in other families where similar occupations dominate generation after generation. Plenty of today’s Washington reporters come from parents and grandparents who were also journalists, for example, and the same is true with occupations from funeral directors to florists.
What has changed, along with the demographic diversification of the nation, are the sorts of families and family dynamics that are reflected on the biographical roster of Congress. Gone are the days when dynastic membership was the exclusive province of white men.
“What has fascinated me most is the constant shifts in America’s dynastic politics, with new families emerging and older ones leaving the field of combat,” Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution wrote in the 2015 update of his “America’s Political Dynasties.” “While the study of dynasties necessarily looks back into history, it also reflects new forces in American politics, such as the rising roles of women and ethnic and racial minorities.”
Of the 14 female members in history with fathers who served in Congress, five are on the Hill today — most prominently House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose dad, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was Baltimore’s congressman during World War II.
And three of the current dozen House members who are the direct successors to their fathers’ seats are not white: California’s Lucille Roybal-Allard is a Latina; fellow Democrats Donald M. Payne Jr. of New Jersey and William Lacy Clay of Missouri are African-American.
“The Constitution states that ‘no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States,’ yet it seems political nobility is as American as apple pie,” Hess wrote.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS CAUCUS
Five percent of the members of the 115th Congress — 15 Democrats and 14 Republicans — were preceded at the Capitol by members of their immediate families. Ten were elected to replace their fathers in the House, two were chosen as successors to their husbands and one was elected upon the death of a grandparent. Four arrived in the House after their siblings. Four are senators, although Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski stands alone as the first person ever appointed to the Senate by a parent. (Her dad, Frank, was a senator until he became governor in 2002 and named her his successor.)
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Daughter of Rep. Arch A. Moore Jr., R-W.Va. (1957-69)
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
Son of Rep. Peter H. Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. (1953-75)
Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C.
Son of Rep. Walter B. Jones Sr., D-N.C. (1966-92)
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Daughter of Rep. Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., D-Md. (1939-47)
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass.
Wife of Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass. (1979-85)
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Son of Rep. Stewart L. Udall, D-Ariz. (1955-61)