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Family Feuds Become Part Of Divisive Political Campaigns Across The Country

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are few subjects that can divide families more quickly than politics can - mother against father, father against son, son against daughter. Well, you get the idea. And then there's this. Today, 12 relatives of Adam Laxalt published an op-ed against him, saying the Republican is not fit to be governor of Nevada. This is just the latest example of a politician's family feud going public. Laurel White of Wisconsin Public Radio reports on some others.

LAUREL WHITE, BYLINE: House Speaker Paul Ryan has endorsed the Republican running to succeed him in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District. But for some, that endorsement isn't the one that's meant the most in this race. It's this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES BRYCE: My name is James Bryce. I've been a cop for over 23 years. I don't think people want to be represented by someone who's shown contempt for those in law enforcement. That's one of the many reasons why I'm voting for Bryan Steil for Congress.

WHITE: The ad seems pretty typical as political attack ads go. And it is except that the person speaking is the brother of Steil's Democratic opponent, Randy Bryce. Joe Zepecki is a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin. He says the ad reflects a political attitude in the state and across the country that's become more nasty and polarizing.

JOE ZEPECKI: We have heard about - and it's been said time and time again that what's happened in Wisconsin with divisive politics has literally pitted family member against family member. And I went, wow, here that is rearing its ugly head in the most public way.

WHITE: Zepecki says this kind of ad is bad for candidates and voters because it makes elections less about issues and more about candidates' personal lives. And Randy Bryce isn't alone in facing this sort of attack. In Arizona, Republican Congressman Paul Gosar's six siblings filmed an ad against him this election year as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRACE GOSAR: Grace Gosar.

JOAN GOSAR: Joan Gosar.

GASTON GOSAR: Gaston Gosar.

JENNIFER GOSAR: Jennifer Gosar.

GRACE GOSAR: Paul Gosar's my brother.

JENNIFER GOSAR: My brother.

JOAN GOSAR: And I endorse Dr. Brill.

GASTON GOSAR: Dr. Brill wholeheartedly.

WHITE: Gosar responded to that ad by calling his siblings disgruntled Hillary supporters who put political ideology before family. He said Stalin would be proud. These ads may be the most public display of family feuds over politics, but fights like them are happening more and more across America even when a sibling isn't running for Congress. Dr. Keith Chen is a professor of behavioral economics at UCLA and co-author of "Politics Gets Personal: Effects Of Political Partisanship And Advertising On Family Ties."

KEITH CHEN: We don't actually have very good survey data on how often it is that families have kind of, like, deep partisan splits within them. We do know that it's becoming more common.

WHITE: Chen released a study last year that used cellphone data to compare the length of Thanksgiving dinners after 2016's bruising presidential election to the length of dinners the previous year.

CHEN: Families that voted differently in swing states actually saw reductions, you know, of over an hour and a half, like, shorter Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 than in 2015.

WHITE: Chen says the more political ads that ran, the shorter the family dinners got. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who seem most hurt by these conflicts aren't the partisans on either side. It's the family members caught in the middle. In Arizona, 85-year-old Bernadette Gosar told The New York Times that she was shocked and crushed by the things six of her children said about their brother in the attack ad. In Wisconsin, the Bryce brothers' mother, Nancy, released a letter asking the PAC behind the ad to take it off the air. She says they need to consider a mother's pain at seeing her sons pitted against each other all for political gain. For NPR News, I'm Laurel White in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.