A family affair: Political candidates need family backing before seeking outside support | Deseret News National
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Debra Young, Debra Young Studios
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A family affair: Political candidates need family backing before seeking outside support

With the upcoming elections this year, thousands of candidates across the United States are raising money, hiring campaign staffs and spending every minute of free time on the stump and glad-handing constituents, seeking their votes.

But before the candidates decided to take on the emotionally and physically taxing experience of running for public office in America, they likely sought the support of those who know them best — their families.

It doesn't matter if candidates are the darlings of their political parties or the public at large; if they want a chance to win, they need the backing of those in their own home, according to Holly Robichaud, the founder of Tuesday Associates, a Republican campaign consulting service based in Scituate, Mass.

Robichaud lists family support as the first step to take when running for office in an article she wrote for Winning Campaigns Magazine.

"If a family is not happy with you running for office, then it undermines your candidacy," she said. "It’s a huge time requirement to run for office, so the family has got to be very understanding of that time commitment. If they’re not, you’re not going to be able to give up enough of your personal time to run."

A family decision

Thom Tillis, a Republican and speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, had his first campaign experience running for the North Carolina Legislature in 2006. Now he travels across the state, campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Both campaigns had similar beginnings — they both started with a family meeting with his wife and two children to learn how they felt about his desire to run for public office. He said the support was immediate.

"In many respects, I think my family was more prepared than I was," Tillis said. "In my discussion with my wife, she was probably more inclined that I run from the beginning."

Tillis’ decision to consult his family first is not novel among potential candidates. The recently released documentary "Mitt," which documents the Romney family through both of Mitt Romney’s bids for the presidency, shows Mitt and his family deliberating in their Deer Valley home over whether he should run for the GOP nomination in 2008.

As his children, their spouses and Romney's wife, Ann, discuss the pros and cons, the documentary shows the potential candidate studiously jotting down notes on a yellow legal pad. The decision was to run then and then to take another shot in 2012, although the downsides they predicted came to be.

A political campaign thrusts the family of a political candidate into the spotlight whether they want the attention or not, Robichaud said. Familial deliberation before making a decision to run allows potential candidates to gauge if their families are capable, ready and willing to deal with that attention, which can be negative.

"Once you throw your hat into the ring, your family will be living in a fishbowl. Be prepared and have them prepared," she wrote in her article for Winning Campaigns Magazine.

Tillis understood the potential impact, which is why he wouldn't have run for the North Carolina Legislature and the U.S. Senate unless he had his family’s support — in particular, his wife’s.

Because running for office requires candidates to put their campaigns before their families, Robichaud warns that jumping into a political race without the support of the family is detrimental to the campaign. While she wouldn't name any candidates specifically, Robichaud has had clients for whom the demands of the family had disastrous effects.

"I’ve seen where the family hasn’t been all that supportive, and it’s destructive," Robichaud said. "Their time demands (to the family) overshadowed the campaign. ... When the candidate's not working hard enough, the volunteers feel less than enthusiastic for (the campaign)."

Living in a fishbowl

Besides determining if their families will support a bid for public office, candidates should prepare their families for the challenges they will face on the campaign trail.

Political campaigns often degenerate into opposing candidates portraying each other in the most negative way. Tillis explained that candidates are generally resilient to that type of personal criticism.

Their families, however, may not be as immune.

Norma Matheson, wife of the late Scott Matheson, a Democrat who served two terms as Utah's governor from 1977 to 1985, remembers the criticism her husband received in the media to be particularly challenging for her, and she had to learn to ignore the negative sentiments.

"You have to develop the attitude that it’s one person’s criticism, and that you have the support of others," she said.

In addition to the constant exposure, the candidate must spend up to 10 to 12 hours a day campaigning for six months or more, depending on the office being sought.

The long hours generally result in less time for the family. According to Adam Isackson in an article for Red State, the time spent away from family and work is something potential candidates need to weigh before making the commitment.

"If you’re not willing and able to make it more than a full-time job, you’re likely just wasting what time you do commit to it. What about your family? Would running for office put undue stress on them and limit your time with them to unacceptable levels?" said Isackson, who has volunteered and managed campaigns in Washington state since the early 1990s.

Olene Walker, a Republican legislator and former governor of Utah, considered how the time commitment would impact her seven children and husband before running for public office.

"But by then I had teenagers that were capable of fixing a meal and helping out. I had a very supportive husband, who, while he was busy running a company, would make sure everybody got to school.

"It was a family affair," Walker said. "I'm certain a lot of things went undone, but we managed."

All in the family

Involving a supportive family in the campaign can offset the downsides to running for public office.

Family members getting involved in fundraising and campaign events as well as making appearances or speeches at political rallies can bring families together and create a meaningful campaign experience, according to Robichaud.

"It depends on the candidate, but sometimes the spouse is out there door-knocking with the candidate together," Robichaud said. "Other times the children are out there door-knocking. My parents were involved in a campaign and I was out leafleting starting at the age of 7."

Ryan Tillis joined his father’s campaign at his father's request. While he was hesitant at first, he also felt an obligation to help out.

"It’s hard to get away from (the campaign) and just be a family," Ryan said. "It’s part of the challenge and why I didn’t want to be involved, but I also thought I could bring a unique perspective to the campaign."

Ryan now spends his time making videos as well as compiling and analyzing data for the campaign — a job he said has been much more fulfilling than the consultant position classifying patents that he left. Better yet, he said, he spends more time with his family now than before.

Nevada state Sen. Mark Hutchison, a Republican, said family members played key roles when he ran for the state Legislature in 2012 and are part of his current campaign for state lieutenant governor.

"They were my campaign team. I had political consultants and advisers, but when it came to boots on the ground, campaign operations, knocking on doors, organizing volunteers, putting up signs and rallying the troops, that was all my family," Hutchison said.

A lasting legacy

Despite the stresses of campaigning, Norma Matheson credits her husband's campaigns and public service as one of the reasons her "children all have a commitment to public service in one way or another."

Her youngest son, Jim Matheson, a Democrat, has served as a U.S. congressman for Utah since 2000, and her oldest, Scott Matheson Jr., also a Democrat, unsuccessfully ran for governor of Utah in 2004, served as U.S. attorney for Utah from 1993-1997 and has sat on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals since 2010.

Making the campaign a positive experience for the family depends on the candidate's work ethic and commitment to make it work, Tillis said.

Scheduling time with the family and making a conscientious choice to communicate with them while away made it possible for him to look back fondly on his first campaign for office and to look forward to his current one.

"I really do believe that the tug between family commitment and community service can be managed successfully," Tillis said.

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