The ‘Nepo Babies’ of the Senate
March 29, 2023 · 12:30 PM EDT
The U.S. House of Representatives is filled with members whose family connections bolstered their congressional careers — but the more august Senate isn’t immune either.
Earlier this month, Inside Elections explored the family political ties boasted by many members of the House. Taking inspiration from a New York magazine cover story on the “nepo babies” of Hollywood, we covered the 11 sitting members of the House who followed their parents to Congress, and the dozens more who succeeded their parents in state politics or otherwise had a connection to politics before they arrived on Capitol Hill.
The smaller Senate provides fewer examples of the direct lineal succession that persists in the House. And unlike in the House, where a number of women hold seats previously won by their deceased husbands, the Senate has not seen an example of “widow’s succession” since Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan two decades ago.
That said, the upper chamber still houses its share of political families.
The Direct Descendant
Unlike in the House, where 11 sitting members are the children of former House members, just one member of the U.S. Senate is the child of a former U.S. Senator.
Lisa Murkowski, the senior senator from Alaska, is the daughter of former Sen. Frank Murkowski, who represented the Last Frontier from 1981 to 2002. The younger Murkowski has long faced accusations of nepotism owing to the circumstances of her arrival in the Senate: she was appointed by her father to fill his own seat after his election as governor in 2002.
It was the first — and only — time a governor appointed their own child to the Senate, and it became an issue for Murkowski almost immediately (as did her more moderate voting record in the state legislature). Bumper stickers popped up around the state asking “Yo, Lisa! Who's yer daddy?,” ABC did a 20/20 special on nepotism in politics, and her appointment was a major topic of conversation as she faced competitive primary and general elections.
Murkowski won the GOP primary with just 58 percent, and narrowly defeated former Gov. Tony Knowles, 49-46 percent in the general election, even as Republicans conceded that “people [just] don’t like how she got the job.” The nature of her appointment also came up in her 2010 re-election bid, when she made history by winning a write-in campaign after losing the GOP primary. By 2016, when Murkowski won a four-way race with 44 percent, her critics cared more about her moderate stances than her last name, and in 2022 the primary charge levied against her was disloyalty to former President Donald Trump.
When Murkowski took office, she was one of six Senators with parents who had also served in the Senate: Arkansas’ Mark Pryor (son of David), Utah’s Bob Bennett (son of Wallace), Indiana’s Evan Bayh (son of Birch), Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee (son of John) and Connecticut’s Chris Dodd (son of Thomas). Now she is the only one, though two of her colleagues have parents who served as members of the House.
Kentucky Republican Rand Paul is the son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the three-time presidential candidate who has attracted a national following since the 1980s for his libertarian politics.
The elder Paul served three different stints in the House and sought a promotion to the Senate in 1984, but lost the GOP primary to future Sen. Phil Gramm. The younger Paul was involved in his father’s campaigns for Senate and House but had never run for office himself before running to replace Sen. Jim Bunning, who had faced pressure from GOP brass to retire ahead of 2010. Rand Paul benefitted from a groundswell of support from the nascent Tea Party movement, of which Ron Paul was affectionately referred to as the “godfather” because of his longtime support for miniscule government. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, leveraged his father’s donor base from the elder Paul’s 2008 presidential run to establish himself as the early fundraising leader in the GOP primary, and he handily defeated an establishment-backed candidate for the nomination.
West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito is the daughter of Arch Moore, who represented West Virginia in the House from 1957 to 1969 but is better known as the state’s longest-serving governor. Moore also narrowly lost a Senate race to incumbent Democrat Jennings Randolph in 1978, and in the 1990s served prison time for federal corruption charges. Capito entered politics in 1996 as a state representative; she was later elected to the U.S. House in 2000, and to the Senate in 2014, winning the seat her father had run for 36 years prior.
In addition to Murkowski and Capito, two other senators are the children of former governors.
Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. is the son of former Gov. Bob Casey, Sr., who led the Keystone State from 1987-1995. Name recognition helped boost the younger Casey to his first political win as auditor general in 1996, though his family ties were also a source of controversy in the Democratic primary for that race, which Casey won narrowly, 37-34 percent. He was elected to the Senate in 2006.
Utah Republican Mitt Romney has political roots all over the country. Though he now represents the Beehive State, Romney was born to George Romney, an auto executive who would go on to serve as governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969. The elder Romney ran for president in 1968 and served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Richard Nixon. Mitt Romney’s mother, Lenore Romney, was the Michigan GOP’s nominee for Senate in 1970. The younger Romney was later elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and served one term. He ran for president in 2008 and 2012, when he was the GOP nominee. His niece, Ronna McDaniel, is the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
And Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine married into a political family — his father-in-law Linwood Holton was governor of Virginia from 1970 to 1974.
State of the State
A number of other senators have deep ties to their state’s local politics, or family members who also entered public service.
Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan was born into a successful manufacturing family but married into a politically connected Alaskan Native family; his father-in-law Bud Fate was a state representative and president of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, while his mother-in-law Mary Jane Fate was the chairwoman of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
In Arkansas, Republican John Boozman holds the seat that his older brother, Fay Boozman, failed to win as a state senator in 1998.
Colorado Democrat John Hickenlooper’s grandfather, Smith Hickenlooper, was a federal circuit court judge, and his great-uncle, Bourke Hickenlooper, represented Iowa in the Senate from 1945 to 1969. His great-grandfather Andrew Hickenlooper was the lieutenant governor of Iowa.
Idaho Republican Mike Crapo followed his brother, Terry, into state politics. Terry Crapo was the majority leader of the state House from 1968-1972; Mike Crapo entered politics following Terry’s death in 1982.
Indiana Republican Mike Braun’s older brother, Steve Braun, served in the state House from 2012-2014.
Both of Maine Republican Susan Collins’s parents served as mayor of Caribou, Maine, and her father also served in both houses of the state legislature. Her uncle, Samuel Collins, was a state senator and state Supreme Court justice. Her great-great-aunt, Florence Collins Porter, was a delegate to the Republican conventions in 1912 and 1924.
Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin’s father, Meyer Cardin, and uncle Maurice Cardin both served in the Maryland House of Delegates. Ben Cardin’s nephew, Jon Cardin, currently serves in the state House.
In Nevada, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto’s father Manny Cortez was a Clark County commissioner for 15 years and had a close relationship with Harry Reid, the Democratic senator who Cortez Masto succeeded in 2016 with the help of Reid’s political machine.
New Mexico Democrat Ben Ray Luján’s father, Ben Luján, was a longtime member of the state House, rising to be speaker of the House from 2001 to 2012.
New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother, Polly Noonan, was a Democratic party boss in the mid-20th century, rising to be vice chairwoman of the Democratic State Committee.
North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis’s brother was a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives from 2016-2020.
Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown is the younger brother of former West Virginia attorney general Charlie Brown.
South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds’ brother Tim Rounds was elected to the state House in 2002, at the same time that Mike Rounds won his first term as governor.
Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell’s father was a longtime Indianapolis politician who was chief of staff to Rep. Andrew Jacobs in Congress; Paul Cantwell was later a city councilman and state representative.
West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin is the son and grandson of former mayors of Farmington, West Virginia. His uncle A.J. Manchin held several offices including state treasurer, secretary of state, and state representative. His wife, Gayle Manchin, is the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Federal Government Officials
Several senators are the children of former federal government officials, ranging from judges to diplomats.
Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet’s brother James Bennet was editor of the Atlantic and the New York Times opinion section, while his father Douglas Bennet was a diplomat who served as the administrator of USAID under President Jimmy Carter, as well as the president of National Public Radio and later Wesleyan University.
Maine independent Angus King’s father was a longtime federal magistrate judge in Virginia.
Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen is the son of a former ambassador to Sri Lanka.
New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan’s father Robert Wood was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In Rhode Island, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse is the son of former U.S. Ambassador to Laos and Thailand Charles Whitehouse, and the grandson of U.S. Minister to Colombia and Guatemala Edwin Whitehouse. His cousin Robert Blake is a former ambassador to Indonesia.
In Utah, Republican Mike Lee is the son of former U.S. Solicitor General Rex E. Lee (1981-1985), who also served as the president of Brigham Young University. Lee is first cousins once removed with former Rep. Mo Udall of Colorado, and second cousins with former Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Lee’s brother Thomas was a Utah state supreme court justice from 2010-2022.
Marriages and More
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is married to Elaine Chao, who served as Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush and Secretary of Transportation under Trump.
Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley’s grandson, Pat Grassley, is the speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives.
Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey’s wife Susan Blumenthal was the Director of the Office on Women’s Health and an assistant surgeon general under President Bill Clinton, holding the rank of a two-star admiral.
Nebraska Republican Pete Ricketts belongs to the wealthy Ricketts banking family: patriarch Joe Ricketts, owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team; brother Todd Ricketts, the finance chairman of the RNC; and sister Laura Ricketts, a major donor to Democratic causes.
New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen’s husband was a U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire under Carter and is a former state judge.
New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez’s son Rob is a freshman member of Congress, also from New Jersey.
Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis met her future husband, Alan Wiedespan, while they were campaigning for the state House in 1978. Both won, and they married in 1983 despite coming from different political parties.