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Famous Names Won't Save Southern Democrats

05/21/2014 11:17 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2014

Democrats might attack inherited wealth, but they are betting control of the Senate on inherited political office. Throughout the South, Democrats with familiar names will be on the ballot in 2014. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn, daughter of four-term Senator Sam Nunn, is running for an open seat. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes is hoping to beat Mitch McConnell. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a fixture of state Democratic politics. In Louisiana and Arkansas, two political scions, Mary Landrieu and David Pryor, are hoping to win reelection. Winning at least some of these races is critical for the Democrats to keep the six seats they need to control the Senate

Having a famous last name has helped politicians since John Quincy Adams, but it won't be enough for Southern Democrats to overcome the anti-Obama, anti-Obamacare views of their voters. Legacy candidates usually run in states where their party is popular - the Kennedys in Massachusetts or the Bushes in Texas. This makes sense, since state political leanings help an ancestor becomes a political giant in the first place. The parents of Nunn, Landrieu, and Prior all won their offices in the 1970s, when the Southern electorate was less Republican. Tellingly, only Jerry Lundergan entered politics after the 70s, and he lost his campaigns for statewide office. His status comes from his skill as a fundraiser and friendship with Bill Clinton, not his ability to persuade voters.

The South today is solidly Republican. Romney won 60 percent of the vote in Kentucky and Arkansas, 58 percent in Louisiana, and 53 percent in Georgia. Even though President Obama won't be on the ballot this election, he will drag down Democrats throughout the South. As RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende has noted, Presidential approval rating explains roughly half of the voting behavior in a midterm election. Mitch McConnell showed how Republicans will tie their opponents to the unpopular President. In his speech after winning the primary, McConnell referred to Alison Grimes as Obama's pawn, and criticized the President as often as he attacked Grimes.

On the issues, Republicans enjoy an advantage as well. The Affordable Care Act is unpopular in all of these states. Kentucky has one of the best exchanges in the country, but only 32 percent of voters approve of the health care law. In other Southern states, the numbers are even worse. By a slim margin, Southerners support revising Obamacare rather than repealing it outright, but those nuances will be lost in campaign hyperbole. Republicans will hammer away at incumbent Democrats for being the final vote for Obamacare and Democratic challengers will be hard pressed to convince voters they wouldn't support the unpopular law.

Southern Democrats have a no-win choice on Obamacare and Obama. The more they distance themselves from the President and his health care law, the less they appeal to the Democratic base. The most Democratic-leaning voters are the least likely to vote in midterm elections, so Southern Democrats need to change that to have any hope of winning. But the staunchly liberal positions that will energize those voters will alienate the swing voters who legacy candidates hope to court. The older voters who remember the current Democrats' famous fathers now favor a generic Republican over a generic Democrat by ten percent. Winning them back requires candidates to distance themselves from the President and his policies, the same way Joe Manchin distanced himself from Obama before his reelection. Manchin went so far as to run a commercial showing him shooting one of Obama's bill's. Candidates who do that this cycle will risk depressing Democratic turnout even below its usual midterm levels.

The real hope of Southern Democrats was crazy Republicans. If the Republicans nominated a goofy, unelectable candidate, like Todd Akin or Christine O'Donnell, these legacy candidates would be in a good place to pick up frightened voters. Since the Republicans have avoided picking bizarre candidates, the Southern elections will come down to whether voters want a name they remember or a party they like. In today's nationally driven politics, voters will pick the party they like.