Helping Conservative Candidates Gain a Competitive Edge

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Seven Common Pitfalls to Avoid as a Candidate Spouse

Shelli Mitchell Gerlach, guest blogger

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There aren’t many jobs which can change your life overnight. Being a candidate spouse is one of them. Simply put, the very nature of campaigning for public office is filled with extraordinary experiences and countless trials by fire.

Over the years as a political spouse and consultant, I have had a front-row seat observing seven common pitfalls that have negatively impact candidate spouses. The results can often be disastrous, hurtful, and difficult to overcome.

Fortunately, you don’t have to let them happen to you! Your best modus operandi is to plan ahead for these potential hazards before they become full-blown roadblocks. Whether it’s your first campaign or your fifth, addressing each potential pitfall early on can make the difference between a smoother campaign and a bumpy one laden with unnecessary strife.


Pitfall #1: You’re not “all-in” with the decision to run for office

The underlying tone of any campaign hinges on this one question: are you 100% on board with the decision to run for office? The answer is extremely important as you evaluate your personal commitment and capacity in support – or objection – of this opportunity. Arriving at this decision will require significant conversations between you and your candidate to understand the implications involved. It is absolutely essential that the two of you are united and jointly vested as a team; none of the other facets of campaigning will matter if this one is out of alignment.

Ideally, these conversations should occur long before filing for public office. Sometimes your enthusiastic candidate may prematurely enter a race without thoroughly examining and discussing how it will affect you and your family. If candidacy has already been declared, it is still crucial to understand the implications it will have on your family dynamics, your employment, the family business, personal / professional relationships and other obligations.

Should you jointly determine that running for office would adversely affect your priorities at this time, it is far better to rescind your candidacy early in the campaign than to have it implode in the crucial weeks or days leading up to the election. That is a class-act decision of integrity that will earn respect and high-regard.

The worst scenario by far is your initial agreement to support the run for office only to undermine its success by withholding support later on and/or exhibiting reluctance in your commitment. This may be unintentional but it is truly a form of campaign sabotage that acts like a cancer; it becomes a slow death in which everyone suffers. If you have any reservations, it’s best to voice your concerns and talk it out. It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed and unsure. Get the information and support you need so that you can be confident in the right decisions for your candidate, yourself and your family. In the world of politics, you really can’t sit on the fence; you’re either all-in or all-out. It really matters and ultimately, it shows.


Pitfall #2: Going into the campaign unprepared

The campaign trail is exhausting work and will rigorously test every aspect of your personal and professional life. Preparing for this season will help you discover gaps and plan accordingly for additional support and resources where needed. Start by assessing the many aspects that touch your life. Here is a starter checklist for your consideration:

  • Will you need adjust your work schedule, reduce your work hours, take a leave of absence from your employment or make alternate work arrangements?
  • Are your business and personal finances in order?
  • Will campaigning expose gaps in responsibilities with your own company or family business?
  • Do you need to hire an extra employee?
  • What responsibilities will need to be covered at home?
  • Will you need extra childcare or dependent care provisions /transportation for your children or other dependents while you are attending campaign functions?
  • How about hiring a housekeeper or a handyman to do home maintenance and yard work when neither of you can?
  • Any family members or dependents who may need extra support?
  • Are there health conditions/scheduled surgeries/treatments/rehabilitation to take into account?
  • What about significant life events – - military deployments, weddings, milestone celebrations, impending births, etc.?
  • Do you need to hire a speech coach, an image consultant, a political coach, a personal assistant?

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention potentially uncomfortable issues. No one likes to talk about assorted elephants in any room, yet it is absolutely vital prior to any candidacy:


  • What is the health of your marriage/relationship? Are there facets of your relationship that need to be addressed?
  • Are there any issues to your personal or professional lifestyle that are incongruent with your campaign platform? How will you handle those discrepancies?
  • Are there difficult or private circumstances, past or present, that could see the light of intense public scrutiny (e.g., arrests, convictions, marital affairs, tax evasion, substance use, law suits, slander and defamation records, ethical violations, suspensions, unfavorable testimonies from work colleagues or friends, neighbor disputes, etc.,)? How will you respond when they become public?
  • How prepared are you to respond to inquiries regarding any aspect of your history, personal or public comments, correspondence, and posts on social media?


Anticipating potential snags before they become problems is simply a fundamental key to any risk management plan in your personal or professional life. Truth is when you become a public figure, both strengths and deficiencies are magnified – -just one look at the headline news feeds and social media outlets confirms this truth. Preparation will go a long way to help you adjust to the new normalcy of campaign life.

When possible, reach out and talk with veteran candidate spouses and learn from their experiences. They can provide valuable insights and advise you on the practical aspects of your role in the campaign.

It’s also a good idea to retain the services of a trusted attorney. It’s amazing what kind of perceived conflicts and situations come out of the woodwork once the campaign becomes the newest “game in town”.


Pitfall #3: Expecting a clear-cut road map to victory

There are best practices and methods that help candidates gain the edge needed toward election. However, the wide range of political variables keeps the campaign from becoming an exact science.

As a candidate spouse, it will serve you well to get comfortable with stretches of ambiguity and pockets of uncertainty. What you need to know is that well-mapped plans often change mid-stream – - and sometimes the changes occur multiple times within the same 24 hours.

Fortunately, your campaign consultants will help steer the necessary course corrections and keep the momentum moving forward. You’ll find that morning meetings with your candidate and consultants can help you map out the events for the day. Two-way check-ins throughout day is immensely helpful in staying on top of the latest changes. At night, it’s tempting to simply flop into bed after an exhausting day, but simply taking a couple of minutes to assess the daily activities can help you manage future days more effectively. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.


Pitfall #4: Projecting an image of someone you’re not

Let me ask you: who are the political spouses whom you greatly admire? Have you thought about what makes them so engaging and likeable? Do you know their timeless secret?

It’s simple: authenticity.

Well-adjusted political spouses tend to be very comfortable in their own skin and aren’t afraid to be themselves. They understand that they don’t need to be a policy expert or the most entertaining speaker in order to garner respect. Established spouses understand not only their own strengths and attributes but acknowledge their limitations. “Being real” is an engaging part of their personal story that makes them so relatable.

We’ve all witnessed the embarrassment of a poor soul trying to be someone they aren’t. It’s an epic fail! Why? Because it is very difficult to garner trust and respect when people can see through the façade. It makes people suspicious, and frankly, there’s already enough of that in the political arena that we’re trying to correct.

The truth is that only you can portray your best authentic self. Sharing your own story creates personable warmth to the campaign that simply cannot be duplicated. Identify your strongest attributes and bring them to the forefront. Share your compelling story! It will draw greater interest in you and your candidate plus deepen the engagement with your voter base. In the sage words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”


Pitfall #5: Neglecting to have your own support system in place.

Candidates have a wide variety of advisors, mentors, campaign schools and resources of support ready for their use. This is not always the case for candidate spouses. Often, spouses are left to sort out these processes on their own without adequate support.

The demands on your time and energy are exponentially greater during campaign season. You’ll be in a far better position to weather the highs and lows when you have a strong network of support. Start gathering your network of people and resources who can help shoulder some of the stresses and obligations.

The key here is to identify areas where you’ll need the greatest support and design actions that give you the support you need. Tap on family, friends and neighbors who absolutely love to help and are willing to offer their talents. Here are some areas to think about:

  • Are you a style emergency waiting to happen? Let your fashionista gurus help you coordinate smart wardrobe ensembles, hair design and make-up.
  • Need to get organized? Recruit your super talented organizational genie to set up routines and help you maintain your systems.
  • Are there friends or neighbors who absolutely love to cook? Let them whip up (and deliver) healthy delicious meals for your family.
  • Got a neighborhood teen looking for a summer job? Employ them to do your yard work, babysit or do light housekeeping.
  • Who are the supportive ears you can call upon – day or night – when you’re frustrated or having a bad day? Put them on speed-dial.
  • Would it be helpful to have the guidance of a coach, counselor or therapist? Schedule regular appointments with them.
  • Don’t want your home phone to be the campaign hotline? Install a second phone line and messaging center that is solely dedicated for receiving campaign calls and inquiries.


Pitfall #6: Leaving Your Personal Boundaries and Margins Unsecured:

Campaigning requires an exponential bandwidth in everything – especially your time and personal resources. A large of part requires your presence at campaign events, fundraisers, after-hours business socials, and community celebrations along with a demanding list for personal appearances at Eagle Scout ceremonies, local athletic award banquets and more.

Realistically, you can’t accept every invitation and attend every event. Nor should you. However, it’s important to consider and prioritize the campaign events and activities where your presence is crucial. Voters expect the candidate’s family to make a reasonable number of public appearances. These opportunities help them to further gauge the candidate’s electability, and really, they just want to see the ‘whole package’.

These are some very practical situations where you may want to evaluate your family’s boundaries and develop margins:

  • What are our main priorities? How do we make sure they don’t fall through the cracks?
  • As the candidate spouse, what are my obligations? Can I fulfill them?
  • Should our home be reserved as a haven of respite or should it be ‘campaign central’?
  • Should the kids be involved with campaign activities? If so, how much should their involvement entail?
  • Will our children be treated differently at school, religious centers, or in the neighborhood because of our candidacy? How will we handle that?
  • What if our child’s band concert or swimming meet overlaps a campaign event?
  • Should we establish a second phone line for constituent and media calls?
  • Can I shop in peace at my regular grocery store?
  • How do I handle an upset voter who dumps his/her complaints upon me at my son’s baseball game?
  • What if a curious but well-meaning person wants to talk about my candidate’s policies and I don’t have time to engage with them? Am I required to speak on behalf of the campaign?
  • Suddenly, we are receiving more requests and invitations for appearances at special events and milestone occasions; what criteria will we use to select our attendance?
  • Must we always talk about the campaign at every waking moment?
  • Can we ever shut the phone off at our house?

Undoubtedly, you will experience increased tension between the push of campaign obligations and the pull of your domestic and work life. Setting reasonable boundaries and safeguarding your margins will help you navigate the optional and the non-negotiable. Sometimes you have to pick your battles in order to win the war. It’s okay to say “no” to good or even great opportunities in order to say “yes” to the right ones. That makes for good political and domestic policy.


Pitfall #7: Not having a good sense of humor.

Wherever the campaign trail takes you, you will meet constituents along the way with all sorts of personalities and value systems.

Since the political arena is the convergence of people and ideas, inevitably you are going to experience a vast spectrum of difficult challenges. For example, an editorial may portray a less-flattering piece about your candidate. A fundraising event falls short of donation goals. Or on the personal side, perhaps you had to miss your child’s recital, or you encountered a well-intentioned person who mentioned that your red jacket is too bold and would look better on someone else.

While it’s easy to be offended, the better option is to look at difficult situations as opportunities to shine. Effective humor is a great equalizer and a healthy way to maintain your perspective. People who exercise a good sense of humor are often perceived as approachable, trustworthy and capable of leadership. It’s an artful quality that is charming to your constituents and disarming to your critics. Learn to use humor in appropriate and effective ways; it really is a great connector for bridging all kinds of gaps.



Shelli Mitchell Gerlach is a political coach and author of the forthcoming book “Smart Domestic Policy: The Capitol Spouse’s Essential Guide for Setting Your Political House in Order.” As a legislative spouse and mother of two, Shelli believes that life in the political fishbowl is best navigated with supportive friends and family over a great cup of java. A self-described “evangelist for the REAL running mates”, you can connect with her at Find more practical tips and updates at or follow her on Twitter @CapitolSpouses.

john boehnerOne does not have to look far to find a poll that says the GOP will do well this year, keeping the House, maybe picking up seats, with an even or better shot of taking the Senate.

The pundits and prognosticators have decreed it so, because the GOP has a slight (4 point) advantage when voters are asked how they will vote in November.

Democrats lack enthusiasm. It’s the sixth year of Obama’s tenure, a year when the party of the White House generally loses seats. And oh, let’s not forget that voters are unhappy with Obamacare, the economy, the debt, foreign policy, Benghazi, the IRS scandal, and a Middle East that is imploding.

My question. Why isn’t the GOP 10 points ahead instead of four?

The answer is the GOP doesn’t stand for much, other than being the anti-Obama Party. A good place to be this year, but not enough to procure a landslide.

Last summer I attended a meeting at the NRCC and dared to ask a high-ranking member of the House leadership when the Congress was going to pass its alternative to Obamacare. “We won’t,” was the answer. “We don’t want to give them something to shoot it. Just better to say we’re against Obamacare.”

Therein lies the problem. And the problem with the thinking. If you want to be the party in power, or secure a mandate to stay in power, you must be willing to offer some ideas, a policy, a platform. And willing to defend them and it.

Instead of offering a reason for a mandate, the House leadership has opted instead to be little more than the party of no. Had the GOP Congress stepped up to the plate and passed its own version of health care reform, tax reform, immigration reform, budget reform, and a new prescription for economic growth, we would see a far greater number of Americans willing to embrace the GOP, rather than regarding it as the lesser of two evils.

To those on a GOP ballot this year, fear not offering a positive alternative to the status quo. Life rewards the bold, not the timid.

I’ll even go one step further. If GOP candidates are not willing to offer and defend a few of their own ideas, voters will conclude they have none. That is not the route to a mandate.

Jay Townsend gives his keynote speech, ” Your Unique Talent to Change the Course of Human Destiny” at a National Speakers Association event in NYC.

For more information on having Jay speak at your event, visit the Speaker Page.

trump 2We’ve seen the play before, and we know how it will end.

Lucy will move the football.

The trouble with Trump is that he wants to bypass the time honored rituals required of a would-be Governor, and sidestep what everybody else that wants the job has to do. He can’t be bothered with that because he is…well, Donald Trump.

Nope. He is not going to offer his ideas or prescriptions to the voting marketplace. He is not going to talk about why he would make a better Governor than someone else. Those time honored traditions are for the ‘little people,’ the lessers and the losers. The Donald is not going to have anybody challenging his ideas, or forcing him to defend his views because he is…well, Donald Trump.

Nope. If he is going to be a candidate, the rule makers must fix the game, give him a free pass on a primary or presenting his views to voters, and simply anoint him the standard bearer of a political party without having to earn it.

Because the Donald is the Donald and no mere mortal, he offered up his conditions to Bob McCarthy of the Buffalo News:
-“No primary against a potential Republican challenger” (I only play the game when the rules are fixed and I cannot lose).
-“No preliminaries” (that means nobody gets to ask me what I would do as Governor, or how I would do it, and I sure as hell am not going to endure some piss ant tea party buffo asking me about my varied positions on gun control or abortion or gay marriage, or those tens of thousands I’ve given to Democratic office holders who fix things for my real estate business or my casinos).
-“No wooing county chairmen.” (Beneath my dignity)
-“No building support for a state convention.” (Beneath my dignity)
-“No convention floor fight to gain enough votes to avoid a primary.” (Beneath my dignity)
-“It’s either total party unity in the next few weeks behind a Trump candidacy, or it all belongs to Astorino” (If I have to offer any ideas or defend my views I’m going to take my little ball and go home)
-“If Astorino backs off, I would absolutely do it” Yeah Right. (I’ll still love you in the morning, something I’ve said to uh, how many wives have I had?)

Bye Donald. Maybe it works like that in the gambling business. But not in politics.

Don’t let the door hit your rump on the way out.

ManningSeattle Won. Fair and Square.

And Manning has taken his lumps.

So in honor of a fine Quarterback who had a bad day, let us recall the words of a great orator in his time, Theodore Roosevelt, who lived a fuller life than most men ever will.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

If Manning had never walked onto the field…he would not be called a loser. There would be no Drudge headline “The Humiliation of Manning.” If Denver had not made it to the Superbowl, he would not be reading about how he came up short.

To those thinking of running for office, who think the humiliation of defeat makes the risk unworthy, take a cue from basketball great Michael Jordan. “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

And the words some have attributed to H Jackson Brown…“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Manning has inspired countless young men and women by his sheer tenacity, grit, and example. I will soon forget his mistakes on game day. I will not forget the way he made me feel on his better days.

wendy davis

While I disagreed with the reason for the filibuster she staged in Texas, I, like many, loved her story. The grit. The sheer determination. The single mom who at age 19, lived in a trailer with a young daughter she chose to raise, who singlehandedly put herself through law school. What a story. What an inspiration to young women across the land who find themselves pregnant and face an agonizing choice between motherhood and career.

Except it seems that portions of her story were, ah…embellished. And not quite accurate.

Your story is what it is, not what you invent. And Wendy, like many, is now learning the hard way that your bio comes under the microscope when you become a candidate for office. Lots of diggers are going to fact check and verify everything that is in it. And if those diggers find the slightest error or inconsistency, well…you are going to have a bad day.

So in honor of Wendy, and anybody else reading this, here is a link to a previously posted video about why your bio needs to be dead on accurate. Period. Don’t embellish. Don’t exaggerate, inflate, claim honors you have not won, positions you never held, or achievements that were not yours. It’s ugly when you get caught. It will also disappoint people when they learn you did not tell the truth. And make it a lot more difficult to earn the trust of voters who read that you didn’t.

ManningPeyton Manning has broken a record for touchdown passes thrown in a single season, surpassing New England’s Tom Brady. It isn’t fair, nor is it right that he has talent and skills that so many other quarterbacks want. In the name of equality, he should give away his touchdown passes to even the score.

Better yet, he should have them taken from him by an Act of Congress. We’ll call it the Quarterback Touchdown Pass Equality Act. Because, as so aptly stated by that sage of our time, the New York Time’s Bill Keller, “…inequality is manifestly real, growing and dangerous.” Dangerous indeed. Any more touchdown passes by that greedy Manning guy and some poor team isn’t going to make it to the Super Bowl.

The legislation would be easy to write. Even Nancy Pelosi could do it, with a little help from Kathleen Sebelius. Give away one of Manning’s touchdown passes to each to the other starting quarterbacks in the professional football league. The rest would go to the President to retroactively distribute as he sees fit–to any team that has suffered because of a history of inequality, or an inequality of mobility, or a pervasive culture of inequality, or any other kind of inequality. What constitutes inequality shall be determined by the President and decreed by Executive Order.

Sure, Manning will contend that he worked for the record. Yes, he lifted weights during the summer when others were at the beach. Yes, he burned midnight oil studying playbooks when others were chasing tail. He will rightly contend that he achieved his feat under rules applied to all players, and broke none. Doesn’t matter. Inequality is a scourge that must be eradicated in the name of righteousness, justice and all that is holy and good.

Why? Because the President said so, and was dutifully echoed by the scribes at the New York Times. And because our lawmakers have decreed it their sacred duty to correct the inequities in God’s creations. How dare God give some more talent than others. How dare God instill more desire in some people (like Manning) than others who simply don’t want to work as hard as Manning did.

Just think. After the act is fully implemented, and the fruits of Manning are equitably distributed, there will be no losers, no heartache, no disappointment, no sadness, no tears, no failure. Everybody will get a chance to play in the Super Bowl. And everybody will get a little trophy…even if they fumble or miss a tackle or a block because no player should be allowed to come up short. Best of all, no player will ever again be deprived of happiness by the inequitable distribution of touchdown passes. Enjoy the game.

Next up. The New York Times Pulitzer Prize Inequality Eradication Act. Because it’s not fair that the Old Grey Lady has won so many.


Profiting from Hate

Recently I received an email solicitation from a Congressional candidate. Nothing new. It is common for 20 a day to clutter the inbox, including those from both Democrats and Republicans. The democrats want me to hate the Koch brothers, Boehner, McConnell, the tea party, and anybody who contributes to Republicans. The Republicans want me to hate Obama, socialists and all those freedom hating liberals that want to tax your wealth and confiscate my gun.

The thought of another colonoscopy is more uplifting than the rhetoric that daily fills the in-box. And even though I seldom give, the shrill pitches keep coming, apparently from people who think that topping the shrill I’ve already seen will enhance the appeal of the shrill I rejected.

And then there are the narcissists…the ‘hey look at me’ and ‘see me with Bill Clinton’ and ‘god bless me for I am gay’ types. Sean Maloney (D-Hudson Valley; actually Manhattan—he doesn’t live in the district) gets an award in this category. You can learn a lot about him if you care to read his drivel. You won’t learn much about what he is going to do for you, nothing about how he is going to do it, or anything more uplifting than why the country needs him to beat back some imaginary evil out to poison kids, confiscate your 401K and steal Grandma’s Medicare.

A suggestion for those who would lead our communities and country through the present and coming rough-patch. Lift people up. Use your words to help people believe in what they can do with their God given talent. Allow yourself to be an inspiration to a country that needs some heroes. Rather than denigrate, inspire. Rather than bemoan the present, paint a picture of what can be. Instead of inciting hatred and instilling fear, rise above the chorus of the age and dare to sing a different song.

Running for Public Office

Tip #10. Paint pictures with words.

Not long ago I met with a candidate running for public office, and asked him what three things he would like to accomplish if he was elected to Congress.

He wanted to reform the tax code. He was to cut crime in urban neighborhoods of his district. And he told me that he wanted more economic growth. Fine.

Except that voters will not easily remember these words for they are mere words. The human mind does not remember words. The mind remembers pictures, and good candidates who expect their words to be remembered will paint pictures with the words of their rhetoric and their stories.

For example, instead of saying you want to cut crime, talk about a city where the silence of the night is never again shattered by the sound of a gang member’s gun.

If reforming the tax laws is your goal, talk about fixing a tax code that has more holes than a trainload of swiss cheese.

If economic growth is your ideal, talk about policies which will allow people to once again climb the rungs of the economic ladder.

In any given campaign, you are competing for attention for tv time, for ink in a newspaper and for space in the minds of the voters. The more vivid your rhetoric, the easier it is for voters to remember what you had to say. The more likely it is that you’ll get the attention of the press. The more likely it is that you will stand out in a crowd.

Words are to a public figure what the brush is to an artist. Paint pictures with your words and it will be a lot easier for voters to remember what you had to say.

For more communication and campaign tips, please sign up for my newsletter at Jay

And please be sure to visit the training tools page where you can download my free video and ebook on how to get your campaign off to a great start.