A favorite son candidate is one who draws their support from the home state or from the broader region. Sometimes the term is also used for someone with little to no support outside of their own region.
In the past, state delegations sometimes nominated “favorite son” candidates as a bargaining tactic. After nominating their own local candidate, state leaders were in a position to make deals with the leading candidates, trading their support for whatever privilege they wanted for the state. The process was described in detail in a piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 1928. The Post-Gazette described the “favorite son” procedure as a way for “professional politicians” can be sure of “securing what they want at a national convention.”
The term “favorite son” kept its original and negative connotation for many years. In 1968, for example, the New York Times wrote about Ronald Reagan’s decision to run for president: “Another declared opponent entered the field against Mr. Nixon when Gov. Ronald Reagan of California announced he was a real, rather than a favorite-son, candidate.”
In the same electoral cycle, Spiro Agnew started out as a “favorite son” candidate but agreed to drop out of the running; he later became Nixon’s running mate.
In modern times, brokered conventions have been replaced by primary elections, which means that the kind of explicit deal-making described in the Post-Gazette no longer takes place. Today, “favorite son” is most often used to mean “hometown hero.” (Female politicians are sometimes called “favorite daughters.”)
An article written after George H.W. Bush passed away, for example, was headlined “Connecticut mourns the death of favorite son, George H.W. Bush.” The piece cited Greenwich First Selectman Peter J. Tesei, who called Bush a “hometown boy.”
“The Town of Greenwich, like the nation and the world, mourns the loss of one of its own — a member of the ‘Greatest Generation,’” Tesei said. “President George H.W. Bush was a true hometown boy, that regardless of his position in the global sphere of political power, he remained forever tied to his family roots here in Greenwich.”
Similarly, Barack Obama was often described as “Chicago’s favorite son,” or as “Illinois’ favorite son.” After his election, many in Chicago held out hope that their “favorite son” would thank them for their support by doing more to help the troubled city.
A favorite son or daughter can also help put a location on the map, when it might otherwise be overlooked. That was the hope when Grace Meng, a member of the New York State legislature, decided to run for Congress. As WNYC said, a win for Meng would be also be a win for her whole community:
“Besides winning the straw poll for political Ms. Congeniality, Meng’s immigrant family and political do-it-yourself background has positioned her as the aspirational candidate in the race. She represents that classic New York political storyline of a rising community that, through the success of its favored daughter or son, can say it’s finally made it, even as questions linger about her readiness for a promotion to Congress.”