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What’s in a name? Political family ties may nudge wins in battleground states

How much does a having a popular family name matter in politics? At least three dozen members of Congress have had family members who've held office before them. And as numerous incumbents see their political futures in jeopardy, NewsHour's Jeff Greenfield explores whether the family business of American politics -- especially in key battleground states -- helps candidates today.

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  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    It is a very different place. Its terrain. Its architecture. Its food. Its music. How it celebrates. How it mourns.

    But for all that is unique about Louisiana, its U.S. Senate race is strikingly similar to contests from one end of the country to the other. In so many of these states, Democratic incumbents with a strong history of family political success find themselves in grave peril in good measure because of the president of their own party.

    Mary Landrieu, seeking her fourth term in the United States Senate, has been in elective office for almost 35 years – more than half her life. She's part of a family that's been in office in this state for more than half a century.

    Her father Moon was first elected to the legislature in 1960. He later served as mayor of New Orleans and as HUD Secretary under President Carter. Her brother Mitch – who entered politics more than 25 years ago – is now mayor of New Orleans.

  • MITCH LANDRIEU:

    Mary got elected when she was 23 years old. I got elected when I was 27. I think collectively everybody in my family served for about 100 years.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    But her political future is in jeopardy. She's in a very close race with physician-turned-U.S. Congressman Bill Cassidy, whose campaign seeks to tie Landrieu to a member of her political family.

  • CLANCY DUBOS:

    She is the last statewide-elected Democrat in Louisiana.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Clancy DuBos has been covering the state's politics for more than 40 years.

  • CLANCY DUBOS:

    And she's got Barack Obama on top of that. And it's not impossible for her to win, by any stretch, but this is by far the toughest election she's ever had.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    It's exactly what's happening to Democrats in state after state. As with George W. Bush back in 2006, the president's unpopularity – he's barely above 40 percent nationally and well below that in key senate battlegrounds – is proving to be a very heavy burden.

    In Alaska, Senator Mark Begich – son of a congressman – is being hammered by Dan Sullivan for his votes supporting President Obama. In Colorado, Senator Mark Udall – son of a congressman, nephew of an interior secretary – is trailing Cory Gardner in the polls. In Arkansas, Senator Mark Pryor – whose father was governor and senator – is struggling against Congressman Tom Cotton.

    What links these campaigns is the same question: Can the family ties of these incumbents help define them as local champions, rather than as allies of an unpopular president? They also point to a striking fact about American political life. To a remarkable extent, it is and always has been a family business. It's not just these endangered Democratic incumbents.

    Andrew Cuomo, cruising to a second term as New York's governor, is the son of a former governor. So is California's Jerry Brown, heading for a comfortable re-election 56 years after his dad Pat first won the job.

    Shelley Moore Capito, the likely next Republican senator from West Virginia, is the daughter of ex-governor Arch Moore. Georgia's Michelle Nunn, daughter of ex-Senator Sam Nunn, is fighting for a senate seat against David Perdue, cousin of a former governor. While Jason Carter, grandson of the ex-president, is in a close race to be that state's next governor.

    All told, at least three dozen members of Congress have had family members who've held political office before them.

    This may seem at odds with one of America's founding ideas. The United States was born in part in rebellion against family privilege; our Constitution forbids titles of nobility, but in fact, America has had a class of political nobility almost from the beginning.

    From the Adams, to the Harrisons, to the Roosevelts of New York, to the Tafts of Ohio, to the Longs of Louisiana, to the Kennedys of Massachusetts, to the Bushes of Connecticut, Texas and Florida. One generation of politicians seems to beget another. Maybe, says Moon Landrieu, it's simply like any other business.

  • MOON LANDRIEU:

    Well, I think it's not too different from that of any profession. I'm not trying to raise politics to a profession, but if you're a doctor or dentist or a lawyer, your kids mostly incline that way. When I ran, my children were young so we didn't hesitate to take them on door knocking, and they got into that posture.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    But maybe, says NYU professor of political campaign management Jeanne Zaino, it's more than that.

  • JEANNE ZAINO:

    On the one hand we celebrate the old Horatio Alger myth that if you work really hard you can make it in the United States regardless of who you are and regardless of where you came from.

    But by the same token we have, you know, for a long time, embraced these kind of political families. The family name is something of a brand name, and it really helps you in the electoral process to have the name Kennedy, to now have the name Clinton, to have the name Bush.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    One key advantage: There's nothing like a well-known name to cut through the clamor of competing candidates. And at a time when campaigns are more expensive than ever – these midterms are estimated to cost some $4 billion – a familiar family name may help open not just doors, but wallets.

  • JEANNE ZAINO:

    In a process which takes a lot of money and a lot of connections, certainly today, it helps to be able to say to a donor you're gonna need to rely on that, you know, "I'm a Kennedy. I'm a Clinton. I'm a Bush."

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    That's clearly how the embattled Democrats see it. Ad after ad features family members in Alaska, in Georgia, and in Louisiana.

    Like so many of her endangered Democratic Senate colleagues, Landrieu wants to turn the argument away from Washington and back home – specifically to her clout.

    As chair of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she says, she can do more to protect Louisiana's critical oil and gas industries. Bill Cassidy has a different view, which includes another pointed reminder of his favorite target.

  • BILL CASSIDY:

    Senator Landrieu as chairman of the energy committee has been unable to get a floor vote on a single piece of legislation. For eight months she's been ineffective at anything but waving through Barack Obama's appointees who attempt to regulate our jobs.

    I will say, when republicans control the senate, any republican as chair of the energy committee is better for our jobs than Harry Reid and Senator Landrieu.

  • MARY LANDRIEU:

    It's not about who the president is. It's about who your senator is. It's who can fight for you even when you know with a president who may not be as broadly popular, even when Katrina hits, even when Rita hits, even when the right-wing Tea Party comes at you and wants to tear the government down.

    So I feel very, you know, yes, it would be wonderful to have you know a party and a president that was more popular but this is not my toughest race.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    There is one distinctive Louisiana twist to this campaign that could prove highly significant. Alone among the 50 states what Louisiana will hold on November 4th is actually a primary – an open so called jungle primary in which every senate candidate regardless of party appears on the same ballot.

    If no one gets 50 percent then the top two finishers compete in a December 6th runoff. And a runoff is all but certain. Retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness – running as another Republican in the race – is likely to get close to 10 percent of the vote, which means that it would take a month to find out who is Louisiana's next senator and maybe who controls the United States Senate.

    Meanwhile ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – son of one president, brother of another – mulls a possible presidential bid of his own, as his son George P. Bush heads toward likely election as Texas Land Commissioner.

    Kentucky Senator Rand Paul – son of a former Texas congressman – is also eyeing the White House as is the spouse of another former president. And Robert Kennedy's 34-year-old grandson Joseph Kennedy III is on his way to another term in the U.S. House.

    So whatever the fate of Landrieu and the other embattled second generation Democratic incumbents, the family business of American politics is very much alive and well.

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