Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Famous Parent-Child Pairs in the US Senate: Part 1-The Republicans

Sep 10, 2021

Famous Parent-Child Pairs in the US Senate: Part 1-The Republicans

tags: Senate,political history


Senator Lisa Murkowski and father Frank Murkowski, then governor of Alaska, 2003. 

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

Since the 17th Amendment established the popular election of U.S. Senators, there have been 8 cases of a parent and a child both having historically significant careers in the upper chamber.

Four of these combinations were pairs of Republicans, and four were pairs of Democrats. This two-part series will discuss the Republicans, and later the Democrats.

Robert M. LaFollette Sr. (1855-1925) and Robert M. LaFollette Jr (1895-1953) gloriously served the state of Wisconsin for a joint total of 41 years in the US Senate, both making major contributions to American history.

LaFollette Sr. (1906-1925) had been the governor of Wisconsin from 1901-1906, and is regarded by most scholars as the most influential and significant governor in American history.  Known as “Mr. Progressive” and “Fighting Bob,” he was the most prominent single figure in the development of the Progressive movement, and made Madison a major center of political reform for long after his time as governor.  He was a leading figure in the Senate on both domestic and foreign policy, and pursued the Republican presidential nomination in 1912.  Later, he was the nominee of the Progressive Party in 1924, and won 16.6 percent of the national popular vote and the electoral votes of his home state.   He became controversial for his opposition to entrance into the First World War, to the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, and his isolationist viewpoints in the early 1920s. He was noted for his emotional rhetoric on the Senate floor on such issues as monopoly capitalism and protective tariffs, his strong opposition to militarism and imperialism, and his support of labor rights and civil liberties. He was able to gain credit for the LaFollette Seamen’s Act of 1915, cooperating with President Woodrow Wilson, but later he vehemently opposed the attacks of the Wilson Administration on civil liberties during and after World War I.

LaFollette was one of five US Senators to be judged by a Senate committee in 1957 to be among the greatest who had served in that body, and portraits were created to honor not only LaFollette, but also Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Robert A. Taft.  A 1982 poll of Senate historians, including this author, came to the conclusion that LaFollette was in a tie with Henry Clay as the greatest Senator in American history. An impressive statue of LaFollette is found in the Statuary Hall in the US Capitol.

His son, Robert Jr, succeeded him in the Senate, and his younger son, Philip, was Governor of Wisconsin from 1931-1933, and from 1935-1939.  He had Presidential hopes after forming the Wisconsin Progressive Party in 1934, and formed a failed National Progressive Party of America in the spring of 1938, believing that a new third party could be viable under the incorrect assumption that Franklin D. Roosevelt would not run for a third term in 1940.

Robert M. LaFollette, Jr. (1925-1947) succeeded his father by election three months after the elder LaFollette’s death, having served as his private secretary from 1919-1925.  Like his father, he was a strong supporter of organized labor and promoter of civil rights and civil liberties. He headed what was known as the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee from 1936-1940, which exposed the anti-union tactics of large employers.  He carried the vision and message of his father throughout more than 21 years in the Senate, and crossed party lines to support much of the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s.  But he opposed naval expansion legislation in 1938, and his isolationist bent, shared with his father and brother Philip, made him a leading spokesman for the America First Committee in 1940-1941, working to prevent America from going into World War II before Pearl Harbor.

 His support of his more ambitious brother’s formation of the Wisconsin Progressive Party from 1934-1946 caused criticism and opposition in that state, and helped to cause his defeat in the Republican primary in 1946 to future senator and demagogue Joseph R. McCarthy.  He stayed in Washington in the spring of 1946 to draft and win passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act, which modernized the legislative process in Congress, a blunder that made it difficult for him to campaign effectively for the Republican nomination.  Although he served as a foreign aid adviser to President Harry Truman after his Senate career ended, he had psychological issues, which sadly led to his suicide in 1953.  His brother Philip lived on to 1965, but never held public office after 1938.

Robert A. Taft (1889-1953) and his son Robert A. Taft Jr. (1917-1993) both served the state of Ohio in the Senate for 14.5 and 6 years respectively, a total of 20.5  years of service between them.

Robert A. Taft (1939-1953) was “Mr. Conservative” and “Mr. Republican” in the Senate, as much as Robert M. LaFollette Sr. had been “Mr. Progressive” in his time. Taft joined LaFollette on the list of the five greatest Senators chosen for portraits by a Senate committee in 1957.  Like LaFollette, Taft had presidential ambitions.  Of course, his father, William Howard Taft, had served as the 27th President of the United States (1909-1913), and had been opposed by LaFollette. Sr. in the 1912 battle for the Republican nomination.  The former President would also serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930.  The whole Taft Family made Cincinnati a major political location, like the LaFollette Family did with Madison.

Robert A. Taft sought the Republican presidential nomination three times, in 1940, 1948, and 1952, but his conservative economic views and isolationist foreign policy undermined his candidacy each time, as he was defeated by the “Establishment” Republicans Wendell Willkie, Thomas E. Dewey, and Dwight D. Eisenhower respectively. He became a leader of the conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats who worked against expansion of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was a cosponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which undermined the labor union movement, and promoted “right to work” laws, which still exist in many states in 2021.  But at times he surprised, supporting the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, though he opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and expressed concern about the evolving Cold War policy of the United States in the early 1950s.  He had served for only a few months as the Senate Majority Leader during the Eisenhower administration when he tragically died of cancer in July 1953. The Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon, containing a 10 foot bronze statue and a bell tower, was constructed north of the US Capitol on Constitution Avenue and dedicated in 1959.

Robert A. Taft, Jr. (1971-1976) had served in the Ohio legislature and in the US House of Representatives (1963-1965, 1967-1971) before being elected to his one six-year term in the Senate.  With a political pedigree of a grandfather as president and his father a leading Senator and acknowledged leader of American conservatism, Taft Jr. had a tough act to follow, like Robert M. LaFollette, Jr.  He never stood out like his famous father, coming across as a moderate conservative in his Congressional career. He supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the House, wrote legislation to expand the National Labor Relations Act to cover health care workers, and advocated amnesty programs for those who had avoided the draft in opposition to the Vietnam War.  He waged three Senate campaigns, losing in 1964 and winning in 1970. After losing his seat after one term in 1976, he resigned a few days early to return to law practice.

John Chafee (1922-1999) and his son Lincoln Chafee (1953-    ) both served the state of Rhode Island in the United States Senate for 23 and 7 years respectively, a total of 30 years of service between them.

John Chafee (1976-1999) was a highly decorated and honored Marine Corps veteran of World War II, served as Rhode Island’s governor (1963-1969), and was Secretary of the Navy under President Richard Nixon for almost three and a half years from 1969-1972. After an unsuccessful campaign for the US Senate in 1972, he won election in 1976 to four terms in the senate, dying in office after 23 years of service.  He gained a reputation as a liberal Republican, and stood out particularly for his environmental record, becoming the Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works after 18 years of membership, and remained its Chair until his untimely passing.  He was a recipient of the Lady Bird Johnson Environment Award for his stellar service on that issue.  He promoted the Clean Water Act of 1986 and amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990, and was an architect of the 1980 Superfund Program to clean up hazardous waste sites and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  He also authored the Coastal Barriers Resources Act of 1982.

Chafee was very liberal on a multitude of issues other than the environment, including abortion rights, the North American Free Trade Agreement, gun control, and the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.  He opposed the death penalty, school prayer, and the ban on gays serving in the military.  He also supported the expansion of health care coverage, including improving Medicaid, and promoted foster care reform to assist youths in the transition from foster care to independent living, with that program now named after him in honor of his commitment to that issue.  He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, and has been honored with a guided missile destroyer in the US Navy named after him, as well as a National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island.

Lincoln Chafee (1999-2007) was appointed to replace his father shortly after his death, and then was elected to one term in the Senate from 2001-2007.  Starting his political career in local Rhode Island government, he served as mayor of the city of Warwick, and had announced plans to run for the Senate when his father made known that he would retire after the end of his term in 2000.  So, Chafee was logically appointed to the remaining fourteen months of his father’s unfinished term before being elected himself. Keeping with his family’s political legacy, Lincoln Chafee was also a liberal Republican and active environmentalist.  He was described by conservatives as a RINO (Republican in Name Only), since he was a harsh critic of many of the policies of President George W. Bush.  National Journal rated him in 2006 as the most liberal Republican Senator, and to the left politically of two moderate Democratic Senators. 

He was endorsed while in the Senate by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters for his strong conservation ideas, and was one of a very few Republican Senators to vote against allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  He voted for free trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement; and against the upper-bracket income tax cuts championed by George W. Bush in 2001. Chafee was also pro-choice, for the legalization of same sex marriage, and supportive of affirmative action and gun control while opposing the death penalty.

During his service in the Senate, Chafee was a significant member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposing the authorization of the use of force against Iraq in 2002, a key step in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.  He also served on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  Chafee lost reelection to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006, left the Republican Party, and won Rhode Island’s gubernatorial election, holding office, as his father had before him, from 2010 to 2014.  He endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, but only became a Democrat in 2013. He then became a Libertarian in 2020, and moved across the nation to Wyoming.  While not attracting much attention anymore, Lincoln Chafee is certainly an unusual political figure.

Frank Murkowski (1933-    ) and his daughter Lisa Murkowski (1957-    ) both have served the state of Alaska as Republicans in the US Senate for 22 and 18.5 years respectively, a total of more than 40 years, and counting, of service between them.  The younger Murkowski is the only example of a daughter succeeding to the Senate after her father.

Frank Murkowski (1981-2002) served for almost 22 years in the Senate, until he was elected Governor of Alaska and appointed his own daughter to his seat. This was criticized at the time as an act of nepotism. In the Senate, Frank Murkowksi was clearly conservative in his voting record, including being anti-abortion, anti-gun control, and anti-affirmative action.  He also supported preserving the ban on gays serving in the military, which his daughter voted to repeal (she also was the third Republican Senator to advocate and support gay marriage).  Frank Murkowski was Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 1995-2001, when the Republicans gained control of the Senate majority.  In that role, he fought unsuccessfully for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.  One could conclude that his significance in the Republican Party, coming from the least populous state at the time, was minor, but it would be very different for his daughter Lisa Murkowski, who remains a significant moderate force in the senate, often crossing the aisle in surprising ways.

Lisa Murkowski (2002-    ) has served nearly two decades in the senate, and has had an impact on the institution of the Senate and the Republican party.  She has been a crucial swing vote, and is the second most senior Republican woman behind Susan Collins of Maine.  She had served in the Alaska House of Representatives for almost four years, and had been elected Majority Leader in that body before her Senate appointment.  She served as Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 2015 to 2021, and is presently Vice Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.  She has also served on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Murkowski has never won a majority of the popular vote in her three elections in 2004, 2010, and 2016, since there have been more than two candidates on the ballot each time.  And in 2010, she lost the Republican nomination and waged a write-in candidacy, which resulted in a miraculous victory. The only previous senator to win a write-in campaign was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1954.  Murkowski likely faces a strong challenge in 2022, when she is up for reelection, as she refused to support Donald Trump in 2016 or 2020, and voted to convict him of impeachment charges in his second impeachment trial in February 2021.  She called for Trump to resign after the January 6, 2021 US Capitol Insurrection, and questioned whether she would remain a Republican in the future.  She also voted to establish a January 6 bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection, but there were not enough votes to form the group. 

Murkowski is seen as to the left of Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia in her voting record, and has irritated both parties through political independence.  She has continued to support abortion rights and Planned Parenthood, and supports expansion of the time frame for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which was declared dead in 1982.  She has condemned white supremacists and other racist groups, while fully backing Alaskan native and other native American rights, and has strong backing from the National Congress of American Indians.   While she voted against the Affordable Care Act of 2010, she later opposed repealing the law without a replacement plan.  She has evolved from opposition to same sex marriage to support of it, and reversed her father’s opposition to gays in the military.  While she has earlier voted against affirmative action, she has supported transgender rights.  She voted against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education in 2017. 

After being against amnesty to undocumented immigrants in 2007, she reversed course and supported a comprehensive immigration bill that offered a pathway to citizenship in 2013.  She also opposed Donald Trump’s decision to build a border wall.   But on the issue of gun rights, she is fully supported by the National Rifle Association, which is further demonstration of her eclectic voting habits.  Finally, on foreign policy, Murkowski has been consistent in supporting Republican views on Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and other controversial foreign policy issues. She has advocated the avoidance of open conflict when possible, but has been particularly critical of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama.  Overall, Murkowski is perceived as someone who will go against the party line, but is hard to figure out ahead of any controversy.

In summary, it can be stated that Robert M. LaFollette Jr. and Lisa Murkowski both had a significant impact in the Senate, while Robert A. Taft, Jr. and Lincoln Chafee had a lesser impact than their fathers due to their brief tenure in the Senate. No one could really match Robert M. LaFollette Sr.’s impact, but his son had a significant career, and Lisa Murkowski has been far more important than her father. The younger Taft and Chafee had terms of Senate service that were too short to make much impact.

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