The ‘Nepo Babies’ of the House of Representatives
March 16, 2023 · 5:06 PM EDT
In its last issue of 2022, New York magazine published an exploration of Hollywood’s so-called “nepo babies.” The article cataloged the countless famous children of famous and well-connected parents across film, television, sports, music and modeling. Think Allison Williams, Zoe Kravitz, even A-listers including Oscar winners George Clooney and Jamie Lee Curtis.
One celebrity included in the story, singer Lily Allen (daughter of an actor and a producer, and older sister to an actor), took issue with the whole endeavor. She responded on Twitter that “The nepo babies y’all should be worrying about are the ones…working in politics, if we’re talking about real world consequences.”
Politics has always been a nepotism game. Even in America, which jettisoned hereditary succession back in 1776, political power never stopped flowing from parent to child. Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, might rightfully be called the “First Nepo Baby'' of American politics, when he followed in his fathers footsteps to the White House. Quincy Adams’ own son, Charles, would follow in his father’s footsteps to the House of Representatives.
Most Americans know the dynasties of politics: Adams, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Bush, Rockefeller. But Congress is filled with less-known political families, some that have persisted for generations.
Eleven current House members have parents that previously served in the House. Another eight have close relatives who served before them. Three more succeeded their husbands in office. And dozens beyond them also hail from political families of some kind.
Inside Elections has compiled a nearly exhaustive list of the “nepo babies” of the House of Representatives. These are the politicians who followed their parents or other relatives into politics — sometimes immediately and in the same districts — or whose family situations helped them to Congress in another way. Some of the names are familiar, but many are not.
The Direct Descendants
Eleven sitting members of the House of Representatives — six Democrats, five Republicans — are the children of former House members. They range from first-term members to longtime backbenchers to a former Speaker.
Seven of those members occupy the same seats as their fathers. Of those, two directly succeeded their parents in office.
Florida Republican Gus Bilirakis was first elected to Congress in 2006. He succeeded his father, Michael Bilirakis, who had represented the Tampa Bay-area district for 24 years, from its creation in 1982 onward. The younger Bilirakis had served eight years in the state legislature, and had previously interned for President Ronald Reagan and the National Republican Congressional Committee. He faced nominal opposition in the GOP primary after former state Sen. John Grant dropped his bid, in part due to Bilirakis’s institutional support. He won the general election, 56-44 percent, and hasn’t faced a competitive race since.
New Jersey’s Donald Payne, Jr. won a 2012 special election to replace his late father, Donald Payne, Sr., who had represented the North Jersey 10th District since 1989. Payne the younger was an Essex County freeholder and a Newark city councilman, and had been a local party leader since the 1990s. He entered the race with backing from the powerful county party machines, and defeated fellow councilman Ron C. Rice (himself the son of a longtime state senator), 71-25 percent.
Five other members hold their fathers’ seats, but did not follow them directly.
Illinois Republican Darin LaHood has represented central and western Illinois since 2015, when he won a special election to replace the scandal-plagued Rep. Aaron Schock. LaHood, then a state senator, is the son of former Rep. Ray LaHood, who held the seat from 1995 to 2009. Ray LaHood, a Republican, also served as Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama. The younger LaHood, an attorney who had worked in GOP politics and previously lost a race to be local prosecutor, was serving in the state Senate after being unanimously appointed by local party leaders to fill a vacancy in 2011.
California Democrat Jimmy Panetta won his Central Coast district in 2016, 40 years after his father Leon Panetta first won election. The elder Panetta would go on to serve as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and later Obama’s CIA director and Secretary of Defense. The younger Panetta had never sought office prior to 2016, but the career county prosecutor who earned a Bronze Star as a Navy officer in Afghanistan cleared the field in his primary. Earlier, as an intern with the State Department, Jimmy Panetta lived in Washington, D.C.’s most famous group home: California Rep. George Miller’s townhouse, which also counted Leon Panetta and now-Sen. Chuck Schumer as residents.
Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes has represented Annapolis and the Baltimore suburbs since 2007, when he succeeded now-Sen. Ben Cardin, who was himself succeeding Sen. Paul Sarbanes, John’s father, at the same time. Before he was a senator, the elder Sarbanes had represented an earlier iteration of the same district from 1971 to 1977. Unlike many of the others on this list, John Sarbanes’ first primary was hard-fought despite his family’s prominence. In his first run for office, the attorney won 31 percent, narrowly edging out former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson (25 percent) and state Sen. Paula Hollinger (21 percent).
Ohio Republican Bob Latta won election to his northwestern Ohio seat in a 2007 special election, taking over from the late Paul Gillmor, who had served in the area since 1989. Gillmor himself had succeeded Del Latta, Bob’s father, who held the seat for 30 years. The younger Latta, an attorney and first-time candidate, had tried to succeed his father directly, but lost the 1988 GOP primary to Gillmor by just 27 votes. Bob Latta would go on to serve as a Wood County commissioner and in both houses of the state legislature. In 2007, Latta narrowly won the special election GOP primary, defeating state Sen. Steve Buehrer, 44-40 percent, and made his way to Congress.
New Jersey Democrat Rob Menendez is the only member of Congress whose parent is still in Congress as well. His father, Bob Menendez, has been a senator since 2006. Before that, the elder Menendez had represented an earlier version of the Newark and Jersey City district that his son now holds. The younger Menendez succeeded Rep. Albio Sires in 2022. Though it was his first bid for political office, Rob Menendez had the full support of the party establishment. His rapid elevation — the 37-year-old lawyer had briefly served on the Port Authority board, a body often accused of patronage — led to cries of nepotism from his quickly-vanquished opponents.
Georgia Republican Mike Collins represents the eastern Atlanta suburbs and Athens after winning a crowded primary last year against a candidate backed by Donald Trump. His father, Mac Collins, had represented a different district, southwest of Atlanta, from 1993 to 2005. The younger Collins made it to Congress in his second attempt. The trucking CEO previously lost the GOP primary for the 10th District in 2014. His grandmother Bessie Collins was the first woman to serve on the Flovilla, Georgia city council.
Two other sitting members represent districts in different states than their parents.
West Virginia Republican Carol Miller has represented the southern half of the Mountain State since 2019. Prior to that, the real estate manager and bison farmer represented Huntington in the state legislature. While Miller holds one of the most Republican districts in the country, her father, Samuel Devine, represented a competitive Columbus, Ohio seat from 1959 to 1981. Devine rose to be the third-highest ranking Republican in the House but was defeated for re-election in 1980 by Democrat Bob Shamansky.
And Nancy Pelosi, who twice led the Democratic Party as Speaker of the House, ruled from San Francisco. But her political roots are back east, where both her father and brother were prominent Democratic politicians in Baltimore. Her father Thomas D’Alessandro, Jr. represented Baltimore in the House from 1939 to 1947 and then ran Charm City as mayor for three terms, until 1959. He made unsuccessful attempts for governor in 1954 and Senate in 1958. Her brother Thomas D’Alessandro III was also mayor, from 1967 to 1971.
All in the Family
Eight other members of Congress count immediate family members — siblings, uncles, even a grandmother — among their cohort.
Indiana Democrat Andre Carson succeeded his late grandmother, Julia Carson, in a 2008 special election for the Indianapolis-based 7th District. The elder Carson had served since 1997. The younger Carson had served just a year on the Indianapolis city council before winning the Democratic nomination in a crowded party caucus.
New Jersey Rep. Tom Kean, Jr. is the son of former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr. The Kean family includes grandfather Robert Kean (a congressman from 1939-1959), great-grandfather Hamilton Fish Kean (a senator from 1929-1935), and great-great uncle John Kean (senator from 1899-1911), and is also a cadet branch of two New York dynasties: Fish and Stuyvesant.
Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee succeeded his uncle, longtime Flint representative Dale Kildee, in 2013. The elder Kildee had served in Congress since 1977, while the younger Kildee had held various public offices since 1977 as well, beginning with the local board of education. In 2012, Dale Kildee cleared the primary field and easily won the general election.
Florida Republican Mario Díaz-Balart’s family spans the politics of both the U.S. and their native Cuba. His brother, Lincoln Díaz-Balart, represented Hialeah, Florida in Congress from 1993 to 2011. While Mario was elected to Congress in 2002 to a western Miami-Dade district (the 24th), in 2010 he switched seats to run in his retiring brother’s district, the more Republican 21st. A third brother, Jose Díaz-Balart, is a host on MSNBC. Their father Rafael Díaz-Balart was the majority leader of the Cuban House of Representatives in the 1950s. Meanwhile, their aunt Mirta Díaz-Balart was the first wife of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and their cousin Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart was a Cuban government official.
Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick succeeded his brother Mike Fitzpatrick in 2016. At that time Brian, an FBI agent, was a political novice, but his entrance into the GOP primary caused several more established candidates to drop out, and he won with 78 percent of the vote.
Indiana Republican Greg Pence was a mall owner until 2018, when he won the race to succeed Rep. Luke Messer in a seat that Pence’s brother, then-Vice President Mike Pence, had represented from 2001 to 2013 before being elected governor. Greg Pence won the GOP primary with 65 percent.
Illinois Democrat Jonathan Jackson won a crowded Democratic primary last year with 28 percent, and succeeded Rep. Bobby Rush. Jackson’s brother, Jesse Jackson, Jr., had previously represented a different Chicago-area district from 1995 to 2012. Their father Jesse Jackson was a shadow senator for Washington, D.C. in the 1990s but is better known as a civil rights leader and two-time Democratic presidential candidate.
And California Democrat Linda Sanchez made history with her sister, Loretta, as the first and only sisters to serve in Congress at the same time, when Linda was elected in 2002. Loretta Sanchez served from 1997 to 2017, and lost the 2016 Senate election to now-Vice President Kamala Harris.
For much of the 20th century, “widows’ succession” was one of the primary ways in which women were elected to Congress. Of the 95 women who served in Congress prior to 1976, 35 were the wives of deceased congressmen, according to a report by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, which also found that “among first-time House candidates between 1916-93, 84 percent of the widows won, while only 14 percent of other women were victorious.”
Of the 125 women currently in Congress, just three succeeded their husbands in office.
California Democrat Doris Matsui won a 2005 special election to replace her late husband, Bob Matsui, who had represented Sacramento since 1977. The election was uncompetitive; Matsui, a former White House official, won 68 percent.
Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell is the only woman to succeed her living husband in Congress. Between Debbie Dingell (2014-present), husband John Dingell (1955-2015) and father-in-law John Dingell, Sr. (1933-1955), a Dingell has represented Michigan in Congress for 90 years.
Louisiana Republican Julia Letlow technically succeeded Rep. Ralph Abraham. But it was her husband, Luke Letlow (Abraham’s chief of staff) who had won the initial election for the seat in 2020. When Luke Letlow died of complications from Covid-19 in late 2020, before taking office, Julia Letlow, a college administrator, won the special election to fill the seat.
State of the State
While the rest of the House might not have a family member who also served in Congress, dozens of other representatives have relatives that have served in political office or another political capacity. Some of those relationships instilled in current House members an appreciation and interest in public service. Others provided now-members a more substantial leg up early in their careers.
In Alabama, 4th District Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt’s father, Bobby Ray Aderholt, was a state circuit court judge from 1976-2007. The younger Aderholt’s career began as a municipal judge. And 7th District Democrat Terri Sewell’s mother, Nancy Sewell, was the first Black woman to serve on the Selma City Council from 1993-2004. Her cousin, Briana Sewell, is a Virginia state senator.
California Democrat Mark DeSaulnier’s father had a long career in Massachusetts politics as a state legislator and judge, though it ended in scandal and his disbarment. Across the aisle, Michelle Steel’s husband is a former chairman of the California GOP.
Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro’s mother, Luisa DeLauro, was a New Haven alderwoman; DeLauro, who had a successful career as a political operative before running for Congress, is married to top Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
Colorado Democrat Britney Pettersen’s husband, Ian Silverii, was the head of Democratic outside group Progress Colorado.
Delaware Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester’s father, Ted Blunt, served on the Wilmington city council from 1985-2009, including eight years as president.
In Florida, 1st District Republican Matt Gaetz’s father is powerful former state Senate president Don Gaetz, who served in the state legislature from 2006-2014 and was Okaloosa County superintendent before that. His grandfather Jerry Gaetz was a mayor and state senator in North Dakota. In the 14th District, Democrat Kathy Castor’s mother is former state senator and state education commissioner Betty Castor, who narrowly lost a 2004 U.S. Senate race. Her sister Karen Castor Daniel is a former state representative. And 17th District Republican Greg Steube’s father Brad Steube was sheriff of Manatee County, adjacent to the younger Steube’s district.
Illinois Republican Mary Miller’s husband is a state senator. Indiana Democrat Frank Mrvan’s father, Frank Mrvan, Jr. was a longtime local state senator. Missouri Democrat Cori Bush’s father is a longtime alderman and former mayor of Northwoods, Missouri.
In Kentucky, 3rd District Democrat Morgan McGarvey is the son of longtime Anchorage, Kentucky city attorney John McGarvey.
Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree is the mother of former state House speaker Hannah Pingree.
Massachusetts Democrat Jake Auchincloss is the scion of a prominent New England political family that includes among its ranks New York Rep. Solomon Bundy (who served from 1877-1879), Massachusetts Rep. Abbott Lawrence, who served in Congress in the 1830s, and John Lowell, one of the first federal judges appointed by President George Washington in 1789. Auchincloss counts among his great-uncles McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and William Bundy, who was an assistant secretary of state under Johnson. And his father succeed Dr. Anthony Fauci as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.*
New Hampshire Democrat Annie Kuster’s family has been involved in Granite State politics for over a century. Father Malcolm McLane was mayor of Concord in the 1970s and a state executive councilor from 1977-1982. Mother Susan McLane served in both houses of the state legislature. Great-grandfather John McLane was governor from 1905-1907.
New Jersey’s Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat, is the daughter of trailblazing former state Rep. John Coleman, whose seat in the state House Bonnie Watson Coleman would win five years after his retirement. And South Jersey Democrat Don Norcross is the younger brother of longtime party power broker George Norcross.
New Mexico Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez’s father Ray Leger served in the state Senate from 1973-1980.
New York Democrat Grace Meng’s father Jimmy Meng served a single term in the New York state Assembly from 2004-2006, and was the first Asian American state legislator in New York history. He was ensnared in a wire fraud investigation, and Grace Meng ultimately won his seat in 2008 after she was removed from the ballot in 2006. Colleague Yvette Clarke’s mother, Una Clarke, was a New York City councilwoman from 1991 to 2002; Yvette Clarke succeeded her mother on the council before running for Congress. Claudia Tenney, the Republican in the 24th District, is the daughter of state supreme court Judge John Tenney, who served from 1968-2003. Long Island Republican Anthony D'Esposito's father Stephen was a deputy mayor and chief of staff to the Hempstead town supervisor, whose town council seat D'Esposito was appointed to in 2016.
Ohio freshman Democrat Emilia Sykes is the daughter of two prominent politicians: state Sen. Vernon Sykes, and former state Rep. Barbara Sykes, both of whom held the state House seat that Emilia Sykes won in 2015 at the start of her political career.
Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole got his political start by succeeding his mother, Helen Te Ata Cole, in the state Senate in 1988.
Pennsylvania’s Mary Gay Scanlon is the daughter and granddaughter of New York judges; her father, Daniel Scanlon Jr, was a federal magistrate judge.
New Rhode Island Democrat Seth Magaziner is the son of Ira Magaziner, a high-profile adviser to then-President Bill Clinton.
In Texas, freshman Republican Nathaniel Moran’s father was mayor of Whitehouse, Texas, which sits in his district. Republican Pete Sessions’ father was a U.S. attorney, federal judge, and then the director of the FBI. Democrat Joaquin Castro is the brother of former HUD Secretary/Mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro, and the son of longtime political activist Rosie Castro. Republican Troy Nehls’ father was the sheriff of Dodge County, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Republican Scott Fitzgerald’s father was also the sheriff of Dodge County, Wisconsin.
Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott’s father, Charles Waldo Scott, was a renowned surgeon and was on the Newport News school board.
Washington Republican Dan Newhouse is the son of Irv Newhouse, who served as the state House minority leader and state Senate president pro tempore while in the legislature from 1965 to 1999.
West Virginia Republican Alex Mooney’s uncle is former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez; his cousin is current Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
Wyoming freshman Republican Harriet Hageman defeated Rep. Liz Cheney (the daughter of a congressman and vice president) in 2022; Hageman’s father, James Hageman, served in the state House from 1983-2006.
Odds and Ends
Other members of Congress may not be following in a relative’s footsteps, but still have family connections that either helped their ascent, or make them notable in some other way.
California Democrat Sara Jacobs is the granddaughter of billionaire Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, whose $2 million super PAC donation helped Jacobs over the finish line in 2020 (and whose success is the initial source of the $9 million Jacobs used to self-fund bids in 2018 and 2020).
New York Democrat Daniel Goldman is an heir to the Levi Strauss jeans fortune and a member of the sprawling Goldman philanthropic family. He used nearly $5 million of his own money to self-fund his 2022 bid for Congress.
Texas Republican Michael McCaul married into the Mays family, which founded Clear Communications (now iHeartMedia). He self-funded his first run for Congress with $2 million in 2004.
Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin is the son of Marcus Raskin, the academic who served as a staff member on President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council and later facilitated the leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
Georgia Democrat David Scott was the brother-in-law of baseball great Hank Aaron.
And New Hampshire Democrat Chris Pappas’ grandfather is credited with inventing the chicken tender.
To Be Sure…
None of this is to say that having a family connection guarantees you a ticket to Congress. Plenty of hopefuls in years past have tried to leverage their pedigrees only to come up short.
In Wisconsin’s 3rd District, Deb McGrath lost the 2022 Democratic primary for the seat her father Al Baldus represented from 1975-1981. In Washington’s 8th District, Reagan Dunn lost in the primary for his mother Jennifer Dunn’s old district. In Texas’ 22nd, Pierce Bush came in third in the 2020 GOP primary for the seat once occupied by grandfather George H.W. Bush. In the 2018 special election in Michigan’s 13th District to replace Rep. John Conyers, two of the congressman’s family members — son John Conyers III and great-nephew Ian Conyers, a state senator — made unsuccessful bids. And that’s just in the last few years.
Spouses, particularly, have had a difficult time winning elections of late. In Minnesota’s 1st District, Jennifer Hagedorn, dogged by her scandal-ridden tenure as chair of the Minnesota GOP, lost the GOP special election primary to succeed her late husband, Jim Hagedorn. In Texas’ 6th District, Susan Wright lost the general election to succeed her late husband Ron Wright. In Maryland’s 7th District, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings lost the special election primary to replace her late husband, Elijah Cummings.
The Bottom Line
There’s plenty to look forward to next year. In West Virginia alone, Miami royalty Mooney is seeking a promotion to the Senate, while Riley Moore (nephew of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, and grandson of former Gov. Arch Moore) is running to replace him. In California, if Nancy Pelosi calls it a career, Christine Pelosi may look to become the first woman in American history to succeed her mother in Congress.
And in Michigan, many Democrats eagerly hope for the return of once-and-future “nepo baby” Andy Levin, the former congressman, son of former Rep. Sander Levin, and nephew of former Sen. Carl Levin, whose district flipped to Republicans last cycle after he tried to run in a safer seat but lost the primary.
In 1967, Gore Vidal wrote of the Kennedy dynasty that “it is as if the United States had suddenly reverted to the eighteenth century when the politics of many states were family affairs … in a way, the whole Kennedy episode is a fascinating throwback to an earlier phase of civilization.”
Sixty years later, the last Kennedys have finally left political office (for now). Nevertheless, the march of the political “nepo babies” moves ever onward.
*Updated 3/20/23 to include Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss. Did we miss anyone? If so, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.