The inevitable question surfaces frequently on the campaign trail.
"Sarbanes?" says Tom Moore, 53, standing in the doorway of his home in western Anne Arundel County, clutching a flier that John P. Sarbanes handed him. "That sounds ... There used to be a Sarbanes ... "
Sarbanes nods sheepishly, like he's answered the question just about every day. And these days, he has.
"Paul's my dad," he says. "He just retired from the Senate. [Rep. Benjamin L.] Cardin is running for his seat."
In the open 3rd District congressional race, in which more than a dozen candidates are struggling to distinguish themselves, the younger Sarbanes has an edge - a name that resonates with just about any Marylander with an electoral pulse.
In fact, in the 3rd District, two sons of longtime politicians are running in the Democratic primary Sept. 12.
Former Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson is the son of Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson, a California Democrat who retired in 1996 after 20 years in Congress.
Across the country and across decades, the cachet of a famous family name has propelled many a politician into office.
From George W. Bush becoming president eight years after his father lost the White House, to Baltimorean Clarence M. Mitchell IV taking a seat in the Maryland Senate, like his father, Clarence M. Mitchell III, political dynasties large and small are a recurring feature of American politics.
With busy voters paying decreasing attention to the political process, a familiar name can be an easy cue for making an election decision.
"A brand name in politics is usually worth one step up the political ladder," said Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "Starting with the House of Representatives is a pretty high step. It happens if your father is important enough."
Though families have been passing on the political gene for decades, the proliferation seems especially acute now, some say.
"Right now, there's just all this kind of crossover we're seeing in families," said Mary Boyle of Common Cause in Washington.
To be sure, Sarbanes and Beilenson are waging aggressive campaigns and taking nothing for granted, and while many political observers put them in the top tier of contenders seeking to replace Cardin, there is no preordained winner in the race.
Neither has held or run for elected office before. Among the 3rd District candidates, only state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Democrat from Pikesville, has done so.
Other Democratic aspirants are hoping that different strengths help them. Andy Barth is a former television reporter whose face is well known in state households. Oz Bengur, a successful investment banker, ran for Congress four years ago and was treasurer of the Maryland Democratic Party. Kevin O'Keeffe has ties to the political communities in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County from years as a high-level local government aide.
But in an open race in a district that bridges four disparate counties, a name could very well be the thing to beat, political experts say, especially if it's the name of the longest-serving senator in the state's history - and one who has been untouched by scandal and who cruised to easy victories for years.
"If his name weren't John P. Sarbanes, and his dad wasn't Paul Sarbanes, the senator, he wouldn't be a contender," said Donald Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "He'd be down there with the also-rans."
The cases of Sarbanes and Beilenson are very different, observers note.
Beilenson's father has virtually no name recognition in Maryland. Still, the former longtime Baltimore health commissioner is tapping into his father's network of supporters in California and benefiting from the know-how that comes with growing up in a political family.
Beilenson has received donations from the committees of two California congressmen running for re-election, Adam B. Schiff and Pete Stark, both through his father's connections, his campaign acknowledges.
But the bulk of the approximately $100,000 he's raised in California, largely during two fundraising trips, are not from his father's supporters but from HIV/AIDS activists and other public health groups.
"He's not in office, but obviously they have friends in L.A.," said Beilenson, 46, of his father and family. "He's certainly been helpful. But it's really my background that has generated most of the money in California."
While Beilenson says that his father instilled in him a respect for public service, the similarities to Sarbanes end there.
"I'm not running on my father's name. The bottom line is, I have a record of accomplishments," said Beilenson, who bristles at comparisons between the two sons of congressmen.
"I think it's quite clear that if his name was John Smith he could not possibly be running for congress," said Beilenson of Sarbanes. "He would not have a chance of winning."
Sarbanes, 44, takes the criticism in stride, pointing to his experience and extensive campaigning - nearly all of it without the presence of his father (his father does appear in a television ad with the rest of his immediate family sitting around a table, but no mention is made of the connection).
The younger Sarbanes is an attorney with Venable LLP, has worked as a special assistant to the state school superintendent and is a board member of the Public Justice Center, an advocacy organization.
While he acknowledges that his name carries a certain political gravitas, he won't speculate as to just how much.
"Of course, we'll never know, will we?" Sarbanes said. "I'd like to think that in terms of credentials and experience ... that those are all things that would make me competitive, regardless. But I also have a name that I'm very proud of and that many Marylanders have a positive relationship with, and I don't apologize for that in the least."
The prime benefit of a brand name in politics is money, political observers say.
"Name recognition is a tremendous advantage in opening doors and fundraising," Boyle said.
Sarbanes has raised substantially more than any other candidate in the race. As of June 30, the Sarbanes campaign has raised nearly $800,000, with more than half coming from out-of-state donors. Sarbanes has tapped into an extensive network of Greek-American and other donors, many of whom also gave to his father's campaigns.
"The people who supported my father are interested, active, engaged members in the community who follow politics," he said. "So I would certainly hope that those kinds of people would be interested in this race."
Beilenson and Hollinger point to the large percentages of Maryland donations - roughly 70 percent and 80 percent, respectively - that they've received as evidence of their support and priorities.
Sarbanes' campaign notes that in terms of dollars raised in Maryland, all three candidates are within the same range.
For her part, Hollinger says she sees herself at no disadvantage without the parental political connections.
"I have a different kind of legacy," said Hollinger, 65, who has been a Maryland legislator for nearly three decades. "And I like the idea that I'm running on my own name and my own accomplishments."