Dynasty’s End?

I rushed over the news of Jay Rockefeller’s retirement earlier today in order to examine the Senate landscape for Democrats in 2014. But as Aaron Blake of WaPo noted, it means the probable end of one of America’s great political dynasties:

The decision by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to retire in 2014 means the nation will likely be without a Rockefeller in high office for the first time in four decades and just the second time since the 1950s.

The Rockefeller political dynasty is surely one of the greatest in American history, including a vice president and multiple senators and governors representing much of the country east of the Mississippi River.

The dynasty actually dates back to Jay’s great-grandfather, Nelson Aldrich, a three-term Senator from Rhode Island (and himself a descendant of John Winthrop and Roger Williams) who exemplified Gilded Age Republicanism (especially high tariffs).

Jay’s uncle Nelson (Governor of New York from 1959 until he was appointed vice president by Gerald Ford in 1974) exemplified a different brand of Republicanism, often called “liberal” (although Nelson was always a big-time foreign policy hawk; was directly responsible for mishandling the Attica fiasco; and was a very important pioneer in the War on Drugs). The high point of his influence on the national party, however, was very early in his first term as governor, when he forced relatively progressive policy positions on putative 1960 GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon in what was long remembered by conservatives as the nefarious “Compact of Fifth Avenue,” which Barry Goldwater called the “Munich of the Republican Party.”
His political career ended ignominiously when he dropped a bid for re-election as vice President in 1976 in order to give Ford a chance to overcome a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan.

I’m just old enough to remember Nelson’s brother Winthrop (“Win”), who as Governor of Arkansas accepted desegregation quietly and is generally thought to represent the last gasp of pre-Civil Rights Act moderate southern Republicanism (his own son of the same name served as lieutenant governor under Mike Huckabee and was considering a gubernatorial run before falling ill and dying prematurely in 2006). And yes, I distinctly remember Jay Rockfeller’s first unsuccessful bid for statewide office in 1972 (after moving to West Virginia just eight years earlier as a VISTA participant), when he lost a gubernatorial race to long-time rival Arch Moore (Rockefeller returned the favor in 1980, when one of Moore’s bumper stickers read: “Make him spend it all, Arch!”). Moore’s daughter, Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, had already announced a Senate bid before Rockefeller’s retirement, and in a nice twist of fate, she is drawing the kind of RINO attacks from conservatives that used to bedevil Jay’s uncle Nelson.

As Blake noted in his piece, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton are both related to the Rockefellers (as were former Sens. William Proxmire and Chuck Percy). But there’s no sign of another “Rocky” on the political horizon.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.