Family feuds are played out in public as the US goes to vote in midterm elections

Featured Image by Jessica Whittle

Abraham Lincoln said in 1858 that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ A divided house was the theme of a series of recent campaign videos released by Democratic candidate for Arizona’s Fourth Congressional District, David Brill. In the first video, which emerged on 21st September, a group of concerned voters attack Brill’s opponent, Republican Paul Gosar, over his stance on issues such as Social Security, healthcare and the environment, before revealing themselves as his siblings – Tim, Jennifer, Gaston, Joan, Grace and David Gosar. The Gosar siblings cited their brother’s far-right politics as the reason for the family divide: ‘I think my brother has traded a lot of the values we had at our kitchen table’, said Joan Gosar in a video entitled ‘A Family Defends Its Honor’, posted by Brill to YouTube and shared widely across social media platforms. While the Gosars’ endorsement of Brill has amassed considerable media attention, they are not the only people to take a stand against a political family-member in this midterm election race. In fact, the sheer quantity of instances of public opposition to family-member candidates serves to illustrate just how high the stakes are in these midterm elections. 

Paul Gosar speaking in Arizona in 2015, by Gage Skidmore..

The Gosar siblings’ support has lent some much-welcomed support to Brill’s campaign. Gosar is expected to hold onto his district, composed largely of rural communities which voted heavily in favour of Trump, which he took with over 70% of the vote in 2016. The Brill campaign approached the Gosar siblings, who live in Wyoming, after seeing their comments about their brother online. After Gosar alleged in a Vice News article in October 2017 that the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, had been a conspiracy backed by philanthropist George Soros, who he has called a Nazi collaborator, seven of his siblings wrote to the Kingman Daily Miner to defend their name against their brother’s comments.

David Gosar told the Washington Post that while he wished he and his siblings did not have to speak out against their brother, he felt that the attitudes expressed by his brother had left him with no choice. Paul Gosar has supported numerous political conspiracy theories in addition to his comments about Charlottesville, such as the ‘birther’ theory that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was faked, and in the summer of 2018 spoke at a rally in London in support of Tommy Robinson, far-right activist and former leader of the English Defence League. Paul Gosar responded to his siblings’ appearance in the Brill campaign videos on Twitter on 22nd September, calling them ‘disgruntled Hillary suppporters’ [sic] related by blood to me but like leftists everywhere, they put political ideology before family…’

In Nevada this October, 12 relatives of Republican Adam Laxalt penned an op-ed for the Reno Gazette Journal criticising Laxalt’s campaign for Governor of Nevada. The piece criticised him for being out of touch with the needs of Nevadans and for falsely styling himself to be a life-long Nevadan. Laxalt’s relatives said they would be proud to support a family member, Republican or Democrat, whom they thought would be good for their state, but argued that his stance on immigration, land conservation, healthcare and reproductive rights make Adam Laxalt the wrong candidate for Nevada. While the article focuses on Laxalt’s character and not on his Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race, Steve Sisolak, some members of the Laxalt family have expressed support for Sisolak and have donated to his campaign. This is expected to be a tight contest, with FiveThirtyEight forecasting Laxalt to narrowly surpass Sisolak.

In August, Bobby Goodlatte, son of retiring Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, took to Twitter to announce that he had donated to Jennifer Lewis, the Democrat running to take his father’s rural Virginia seat. Goodlatte has been outspoken against his father, particularly for his role in the hearing of FBI agent Peter Strzok, but told Twitter users it “certainly wasn’t an easy decision” to criticise his father. Strzok was fired after it emerged that he had sent texts criticising President Trump. Virginia’s Sixth Congressional District, where Lewis is running, is expected to be a solid win for Republican Ben Cline, according to FiveThirtyEight.

An endorsement from an opponent’s family has high political value to an electoral candidate. Such attacks tend to draw considerable media attention and may lead voters to question whether a candidate’s values are representative of their own and their family’s best interests. Traditionally, an appeal to ‘family values’ or ‘putting families first’ has been used in campaigns on both sides of the political divide in the US and the support of one’s family can translate to major political capital. Families can help candidates win elections: candidates with well-connected families who are active in their community are likely to win elections over less well-connected opponents, because their family may open the door to influence and high-profile political allies. However, the value of the family ‘brand’ in political campaigning is under threat as political opinions within the home diversify. Millennials are reportedly ‘the least politically loyal generation on record’, less likely to inherit their parents’ political views and more likely to explore their political options than previous generations. 

While political division within the home is common and can make for uncomfortable conversation come election time, the leveraging of political difference in the midterm campaigns and the outspokenness of family members who disagree with their political kin demonstrates how much is at stake and how far the families of candidates are willing to go to defend their values in these midterm elections. These campaigns against family members may make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinners, but they may help swing the vote in close runs when voters go to the polls on Tuesday.

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