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Meet the Udalls: Another Political Dynasty on The Ballot

Image: Msrk Udall

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 9, 2014. Udall, who was to appear with President Barack Obama in Denver at a Democratic fundraiser Wednesday, says he's too busy with legislative business in Washington to attend. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke) AP

Dynastic candidates are back.

A Clinton is contemplating another White House bid. So is another Bush -- maybe. And Jimmy Carter’s grandson is running for governor in Georgia this year.

But there’s another family to watch on the November ballot: the Udalls.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is facing a challenging bid for re-election. His cousin, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is expected to have a much easier ride to a second term in New Mexico.

A third Senate member to this bipartisan Western pioneer family – second cousin Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah – isn’t up for re-election until 2016.

Compared with the Clintons and Kennedys, the Udalls are more of a regional political dynasty. But that doesn’t stop them from churning out politician after politician.

“The Udalls are to the American West, and to Arizona specifically, what the Kennedys are to Massachusetts,” said Gordon Smith, the former Republican senator from Oregon. He is another member of the Udall clan – a double second cousin to Mark and Tom Udall.

Following in big footsteps

Smith spoke in the cozy conference room at the National Association of Broadcasters’ headquarters, where he serves as president and CEO. His voice was quiet, almost pious, as he lost himself in stories about his family and its legacy.

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** FILE ** In this Feb. 1, 2006 file photo, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., listens to testimony before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, , in Washington. .(AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson, File) LAWRENCE JACKSON / AP

“If you’re in the executive branch, you tend to have a more national and international impact, which is why the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Clintons are better known internationally,” he says. “But in terms of national and regional impact, the Udalls in the legislative and judiciary branches of government have had tremendous impact in shaping public policies on the environment, civil rights, economics – you name it.”

The cousins’ great-grandfather, David King Udall, led a Mormon colony from Utah to settle in northeastern Arizona. The patriarch, who lived in a plural marriage, was part of the last generation of the church’s 19th-century days of polygamy. He was also a member of the select circle of men who helped found the state of Arizona. Since those days, the Udall family has produced a string of state Supreme Court chief justices, congressmen and servants in a multitude of other public offices.

“When you grew up with a Udall mother or father, you grew up in the nurture of public service, the value that where you were given much, you should give back and make the world a better place,” Smith said.

Other big shoes Mark and Tom Udall are trying to fill are their fathers’ – Morris (“Mo”) and Stewart Udall, respectively.

"The Udalls are to the American West, and to Arizona specifically, what the Kennedys are to Massachusetts."

The two late congressmen and Democratic key players during the Kennedy and Johnson years have a foundation named after them. Terrence Bracy, the organization’s former chairman, once called Mo, Mark’s dad, “arguably the greatest environmental legislator of the 20th century.”

When his Parkinson’s disease took its ultimate toll on the congressman and onetime Denver Nuggets NBA player, a 1998 New York Times obituary dubbed him “a liberal conscience of the House of Representatives for 30 years and a tireless advocate for environmental protection and political reform.”

“He got up every day, and he went out to show people that they were better than they knew and to inspire them to give a little bit of time to public service, whatever its form may be,” Mark eulogized at a Udall foundation event in 2006. “And in my own way, I’m paying back, or paying forward, the inspiration he provided me.”

His father isn’t the only moral compass in Mark’s life. His late mother, Patricia, signed up for the Peace Corps at age 56. Her five-year mission was to provide micro-loans to Nepalese women in rural villages to build up economic prosperity in the remote country.

"He got up every day, and he went out to show people that they were better than they knew and to inspire them to give a little bit of time to public service, whatever its form may be."

“[His parents’] passion for helping people and protecting the Western way of life inspired Mark to do all he can to build on the work they started,” wrote Chris Harris, a spokesperson for Udall’s re-election campaign.

A quest for a legacy

The Udall cousins form a unified front on Capitol Hill. “President Truman said: ‘If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,’ because it was such an unfriendly place, but I have my best friend here,” Tom said at the Udall foundation event in 2006. “All the members kid us about it, I don’t think they like having this Udall team there.”

In 2008, the cousins ran for Senate on the joint informal campaign slogan: “Vote for the Udall nearest you!”

And come November 2014, their legacies will be on the line.

“[Tom Udall] is a solid vote-getter, but he needs to establish more of a senatorial footprint,” said New Mexico journalist Joe Monahan. “He is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. [New Mexico] is experiencing a lot more economic trauma than most other [states] – addressing that could be Udall’s legacy. But he needs time.”

Image: Tom Udall
Senator-elect Tom Udall, D-N.M., left is hugged by a supporter in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/LM Otero) LM Otero / AP

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli takes a harsher stance on Mark Udall’s legacy prospects in Colorado. “If he were to lose in the fall, he would have been a good senator, but his name wouldn’t stand for anything lasting, unlike that of Mo and Stewart Udall,” Ciruli said. “He does not have the personality to be front and center. One of the reasons why he is in trouble, and I still expect him to win, is that I find it hard to say what his one outstanding issue over the past six years was. People don’t see the issue he fought to death for, that he is defending them for.”

In an email, Udall campaign spokesperson Chris Harris fired back, highlighting Udall’s flood-recovery efforts, reining in NSA overreach, as well as the senator’s work that “has made Colorado a model for the nation on safe and responsible production of traditional and clean energy.”