A New Kennedy Legacy? Vicki Kennedy Wouldn't Be First Pol's Spouse to Inherit a Seat

With Caroline Kennedy no longer making headlines, political insiders are buzzing about another Kennedy clanswoman -- Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wife of ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy, who may be poised to take over her husband's Democratic seat should he be unable to complete his term in office.

Beltway observers are wondering whether Vicki Kennedy, who also has a political bloodline, could fill her husband's shoes as the most influential Kennedy in politics.

According to news reports back in May, sources close to Ted Kennedy said he wants his wife to take his place. But, though Vicki Kennedy is well-liked in Massachusetts, she can't simply be named to replace him. By state law, she would have to run in a special election.

If it were to happen, it wouldn't be the first time a wife replaced her husband in the Senate. The wives of Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was posthumously elected to the Senate, are just a few examples.

You would have to divide the spouses between "those who were just seat warmers, as a way of honoring their husbands, but would not remain in politics" and others who "actually built on their husband's reputation, and in some cases, far exceeded it," said Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and author of "America's Political Dynasties."

In the latter group, Hess cites Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, the Republican from Maine who became the longest-serving female senator; and Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), Rep. Sonny Bono's widow, who has held office since the 1998 special election to fill her late husband's seat. The congresswoman married Florida Rep. Connie Mack in 2007.

Biographer Sally Bedell Smith speculates that Vicki Kennedy wouldn't be just a placeholder.

"She has political game. Politics is in her DNA, too," said Smith, author of "Grace and Power," a Kennedy family profile. Vicki Kennedy, 55, married Ted, 77, in 1992, after a long history of family ties. Her father, Edmund Reggie, a former banker and judge in Louisiana, backed John F. Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, when he unsuccessfully sought the vice presidential nomination, and he campaigned for Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. Reggie also backed Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and Ted Kennedy when he challenged Jimmy Carter in 1980. Vicki's mother, Dorris, served as a Democratic national committeewoman.  

"I have no reason to assume she wouldn't want to run in her own right," said Barbara Kellerman, professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. But she cautioned that voters might question Vicki Kennedy's ties to Massachusetts, which are not longstanding.

Vicki Kennedy isn't the only relative of a well-known politician who could get a boost from her family name. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's son, Rory, and Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, are also eyeing political offices. Currently, 22 House seats are held by children of congressmen, and four are held by widowed spouses. In the Senate, nine senators are holding seats once held by their parents.

Among the 15 largest political dynasties, 118 members of Congress, including both representatives and senators, have served 766 two-year terms between 1789 and 1996, according to a study on political dynastic trends by three economics professors.

Below is a list of some of the scions, spouses and siblings who have scored seats in government, thanks in part to their last names.  

1) The Bushes

George W. Bush followed his father, George H.W. Bush, into the White House, while brother Jeb served two terms as governor of Florida. The Bush brand may have soured with George W. Bush's low approval ratings, but not for long, say some.

"I think it's short lived," said Juan Williams, Fox political analyst and NPR news analyst. "It's like saying the Kennedy name is tarnished after Chappaquiddick," or the Clinton name after Bill's impeachment, he said.

Jeb Bush, 56, decided not to run for the retiring Mel Martinez's Senate seat, but both he and his son, George P. Bush, could emerge in the future. "I wouldn't count out someone who's part of a dynasty," Hess said.   "The only thing that's working against Jeb is time, if he's too old," Williams said. But people would be "fascinated" by his son, George P. Bush, 32, who comes from a different heritage, with a Hispanic mother, and could help reinvent the party image, Williams said.

2) The Kennedys

The Kennedys "deliberately set out to create a dynastic situation," said Bedell Smith, under patriarch Joseph Kennedy Sr.

Once John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he wanted his younger brother Ted to fill his Massachusetts Senate seat, but Ted was too young, so the governor appointed a family friend to serve out Jack's term. This paved the way for Ted Kennedy to run for office in 1962, in the same vein as Joe Biden's son, Beau, who is currently deployed in Iraq, may run for Biden's seat in 2010. The seat is currently occupied by Biden's former chief of staff.

"The Kennedys had one great generation, and although they had a lot of children -- they haven't really succeeded in the next generation in terms of being elected to office," said Hess, with the exceptions of Patrick Kennedy, currently as a Rhode Island congressman, and Joseph Kennedy II, a former Massachusetts representative.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend won two terms as Maryland lieutenant governor, but she lost a gubernatorial bid in 2002. And Caroline Kennedy's name didn't help her in her short-lived quest to replace Hillary Clinton as senator from New York.

3) The Clintons

Riding on her husband's coattails, first as "co-president," then as senator, and now as sectary of state, Hillary has certainly benefited from Bill's political clout. "The Clintons are in a class by themselves," said Sally Bedell Smith, who profiled the couple in "For Love of Politics." "It's not so much a dynastic situation as it is extending Clinton legacy that began in the '90s," she said, adding that she wouldn't rule out a second presidential bid by Hillary. 

The American people "have an endless interest in dynasties," said Kellerman, as political figures are turned into political celebrities. "Hillary has become a star in her own right. The recognition factor counts for a lot."

And possibly waiting in the wings is the Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, who drew large crowds as she campaigned vigorously for her mom in the 2008 campaign.

4) The Udalls

Democratic cousins Tom Udall and Mark Udall made headlines in November as they both became first-time senators. Tom, from New Mexico, and Mark, from Colorado, had both served in the House between 1999 and 2009. Members of their extended family, which spans six states, have held various national and local political positions since the turn of the last century. They are also related to former Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, who was defeated in 2008.

This family "has to be considered in dynasty mode," said Hess. "They're unusual and interesting, and young enough to have a long history in politics."

5) The Cuomos

Following in his father Mario's footsteps, Andrew, 51, has made quite a name for himself in New York politics. Even though he withdrew from the Democratic nomination battle to follow his father as governor in 2002, Andrew, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Clinton administration, won the New York state attorney general race in 2006. He also was married to Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, until 2003.

This is "quite the dynasty in the making," said Juan Williams. "Andrew has a strong political future ... Nothing is more valuable in American politics than brand name association and identity." 

6) The Greggs

Judd Gregg, the former New Hampshire governor, former U.S. representative and now sitting U.S. senator, was in the limelight just weeks ago when he was nominated to be secretary of the Commerce Department by President Obama, and then withdrew his name. His father Hugh was youngest governor of New Hampshire, mayor of Nashua, and managed Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign and George H.W. Bush's unsuccessful 1980 presidential bid. 

7) The Kilpatricks

Kwame Kilpatrick, the now disgraced former mayor of Detroit, started out with a bright future as the city's youngest mayor. He got his start in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1996 by running for his mother's seat after she successfully pursued a seat in Congress. His felony charges, resignation, and jail time for concealing an affair also made his mother's recent House race closer than it would have been, said Mike Smith, Detroit historian and director of the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. "This was certainly the worst administration that has been in place" in the history of Detroit, he added.

8) Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.

The eight-term congressman and son of the civil rights activist and former presidential candidate was supposed to be the "new and improved" version of his father -- "Jesse Jackson 2.0," said Juan Williams. "He's more educated and didn't play racial politics, even scolding his father when he went after Barack Obama." But since his name has surfaced in the Blagojevich scandal, it has "put a damper on his immediate prospects," said Williams, and his future depends on how the tapes play out.

9) The Gores  

The former vice president turned global warming activist and Nobel laureate had a long career in the House and the Senate dating back to 1977. His father, Al Gore, Sr., was a representative and senator for more than 30 years.

10) Adamses, Roosevelts, Harrisons

If you look back further into history, President John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, also became president; President William Henry Harrison's grandson, Benjamin, also attained the office; and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and President Theodore Roosevelt were fifth cousins.

The list of legacies, dynasties, and politically connected families doesn't end there. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Evan Bayh, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Sen. John Sununu, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Sen. Jean Carnahan and Rep. Russ Carnahan, Rep. Doris Matsui, Rep. Bill Shuster, Rep. Connie Mack, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the Salazar brothers, the Sanchez sisters, and the Diaz-Balart brothers are just a handful of family names who have risen to power in recent years.