What's in a name? Not as much as there used to be -- at least, if it's Kennedy or Cuomo. On Sept. 3, when a wet-eyed Andrew M. Cuomo withdrew from the Democratic primary for the New York governorship, which he once was expected to dominate, it wasn't just the isolated failure of a candidate who ran a flawed campaign. All over the country, big names with big bankrolls and high expectations have met surprising hostility from skeptical voters.
In a period of uncorked populism that has followed the corporate crime wave, angry Americans are exhibiting a distinct antiroyalist streak when it comes to candidates. "Being dealt a good hand doesn't mean you win the game, and having a great name doesn't mean you win the election," says Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "In these troubled times, the person with the best ideas for helping people improve their lives will win, whether you are Smith, Jones, or Kennedy."
Among those threatened by dynastic backlash: Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Bush's reelection campaign has become so concerned about the rapid rise of dark-horse Democrat Bill McBride that it has begun to air attack ads against the Tampa lawyer. The first-term governor has good reason to worry: The moderate McBride has emerged in recent weeks as a serious threat to both Democratic primary front-runner Janet Reno and Bush.
Jeb's brother, the President, is unlikely to sit idly by while his younger sibling struggles against a folksy political newcomer. However, what once was thought of as a clear advantage--a respected political pedigree--has become a double-edged sword as voters question whether either blue-chip executives or blue-blood candidates deserve their trust.
Examples cross partisan and ideological lines. In New York, Cuomo was running far behind state Comptroller H. Carl McCall before succumbing to intense Democratic pressure to throw in the towel. Five months earlier, the son and namesake of legendary Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey was trounced by a more charismatic Democratic primary rival, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. In Texas, the sons of two GOP congressmen, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey, failed even to capture the party nomination when they tried to follow in their fathers' footsteps.
The family dynasty most at risk this year, though, is that of the Kennedys. Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy, has seen her huge lead in the governor's race evaporate amid an uninspired campaign against a lightly regarded Republican foe in a heavily Democratic state. In Washington's Maryland suburbs, Townsend's first cousin Mark Shriver, son of President Kennedy's sister Eunice, is locked in a surprisingly tight House primary. Even if Shriver survives the Sept. 10 contest, he is trailing GOP incumbent Constance A. Morella in a Democratic-leaning district, according to polls. And certainly, the Kennedy magic didn't help former Housing & Urban Development Secretary Cuomo, who is married to another daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.
Among the Kennedys' woes: The conviction of family member Michael Skakel in the death of a teenage neighbor 27 years ago has, fairly or not, reminded voters of the dark side of the Camelot legend. Says Claremont McKenna College political scientist John J. Pitney Jr.: "In competitive races, there is a focus on competence--not genetics--this year."
It's often said that political children inherit half of their parents' friends and all of their enemies. That, combined with a deeply distrustful electorate, may mean the electoral name game is over for a while. Certainly, it's enough to give pause to pols as disparate as George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton as they look to the uncertain future. It's still a long shot, but odds are improving that Congress will pass a new economic stimulus bill before the election. Hill Democrats, wary of opposing another tax cut, say they might consider some elements of a White House plan that's expected soon. Top Hill aides say Dems might agree to a provision that would let individuals receive up to $500 a year in dividends tax free, as well as liberal new withdrawal rules for IRAs. In return, Dems would likely demand a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits and $9 billion to help states pay soaring Medicaid costs. For the first time since September 11, a national poll shows President Bush's job-approval rating dipping below 60%. According to an Aug. 26-29 survey by the independent American Research Group, 59% of Americans give Bush good marks. That's still an impressive number, and it includes 47% of Democrats and 52% of Independents. Republicans, however, have to be concerned about public perceptions of how Bush has handled the economy. Just 47% of voters say he's a deft steward. And 70% of Democrats give him a thumbs-down. When asked to give a one-word description of their feelings about the Bush Presidency, respondents most often answered: "worried." That's not a word you want on the tips of voters' tongues just before midterm elections.