Running for office, like consulting, is often a family business. To be sure, some businesses function better than others.
Now, in any family, disputes arise. But when it comes to family disagreements about politics in 2018, there tends to be a sharper divide. And in the case of a candidate seeking federal or statewide office, these family disputes often make headlines.
In fact, there’s now a spotlight on familial discord, in part, because social media profiles allow once privately held views to be shared more broadly than at the dinner table during a family gathering. Beyond Facebook sniping, though, family disputes this cycle have taken on a life of their own.
From Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar's (R) combative siblings to Wisconsin Republican Kevin Nicholson’s unsupportive parents, candidates are finding themselves having to answer for what their close relations think of their political positions.
Consultants say dealing with familial antagonism is nothing new—it’s just a more public challenge in 2018.
“Candidates and officeholders have always had to deal with disagreeable and outspoken family members,” said Tom Edmonds, a veteran GOP media consultant. “Social media has just help magnify and accelerate the problem."
Consultants are used to difficult spouses who either create conflict with staff members or grow uncomfortable with any negative feedback or backlash the candidate receives. A certain amount of personality management comes with the territory, according to Emily Gittleman, digital director at San Francisco-based 50+1 Strategies.
“When close friends or former allies opt to support a rival, we remind our candidates to stay focused on their campaign and the work ahead of them, and to ignore the betrayal,” she said. “There usually isn't anything to be gained by making an emotional response like that public.”
She noted that Gosar’s case was unique because of how creatively his six siblings went public with their displeasure—appearing in a TV spot for Democratic challenger David Brill, and even doing media interviews.
“If candidates get to be so public online, while messaging themselves and their campaigns however they like, then why shouldn't their families also get to publicly acknowledge when candidates aren't being truthful about their values, motives, or intentions?” Gittleman wondered.
In Gosar's case, his camp said the family attack was a net positive for the incumbent.
"I think its a big mistake for family members to publicly oppose family members," said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP consultant working with Gosar. "They think they make some particularly impactful point about their clan, but most people see it as below the belt.
"In the case of the Gosars, six Democrats attacking their Republican brother came across as politics before family and backfired. The Gosar campaign immediately had an infusion of online donations and our recent direct mail piece on it has dramatically exceeded anything we’ve done in the past."
Craig Varoga, a Democratic consultant, recently advised candidates in positions like Gosars not to ignore the family attack.
“You won’t have any choice and must deal directly with their accusations,” Varoga wrote.
“But if your relatives are just members of the other party and tell a small circle of their neighbors they disagree with you on the issues, then it’s wisest to say most families have political disagreements and that, regardless of how they vote, you love them and hope to see them at the next family get-together. Then move on to explaining to voters why they should support you and reject your opponent.”
Family tension isn’t always external for a campaign. In fact, sometimes the challenge a family member poses is from the help that they’re offering.
Nancy Leeds, a California-based practitioner, noted that consultants need to tread carefully when dealing with, say, a candidate who wants his niece to run the campaign’s Twitter account.
“Even if you have a super close relationship with your candidate these people were with her before you and will be with her after you,” Leeds wrote recently in C&E.
“Better to find a more appropriate role for the candidate’s friends and family who are excited to help (like precinct captains, surrogates, or a fundraising committee) and to get your candidate come to realize that their family’s most important role on the campaign is as a support system.”