In Iowa, presidential candidates’ kids hit campaign trail
It has become a ritual for Cameron Bullock. In each new state where he sets foot on family trips, he does a backflip.
The 12-year-old had more than one chance to perform the stunt in Iowa this summer. He visited the state twice with his father, 2020 Democratic primary candidate and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. As of the Iowa State Fair, Cam’s backflip tour of the country had reached a dozen states, according to Bullock’s campaign staff.
Bullock’s wife, Lisa, and daughters Caroline, 17, and Alexandria, 15, were also in tow. At the State Fair, where the governor spoke about gun policy, campaign finance and tariffs at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox, the Bullocks raced one another down the Local 5 Giant Slide, enjoyed a free egg-on-a-stick and took selfies in front of Iowa’s famous butter cow.
“This is the real reason I’m here,” Caroline said of the butter cow.
As 2020 presidential hopefuls traversed the state this summer to woo voters, their families have often tagged along for the ride. Candidates say bringing their families along helps them spend more time with them during their grueling campaign schedules. It also gives Iowans a more up-close look at the candidates’ personal lives, which can make them more relatable in a process that puts a high value on person-to-person interaction.
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‘They seem like good kids’
Two days after the Bullock family attended the State Fair, 5-year-old Brady Ryan, son of Rep. Tim Ryan, swung between his parents’ arms while walking across the fairgrounds. He later found himself in the arms another presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, when the two presidential hopefuls ran into each other. His father snapped a photo.
Sam Steyer, Tom Steyer’s oldest adult son and a member of his 2020 campaign team, accompanied his father to the Iowa State Fair the next day, where he interacted with fair-goers and snapped photos as his father stopped to pose with members of the crowd.
The following week, a baseball cap-wearing Bernie Sanders played catch with 11-year-old grandson Dylan ahead of a campaign event at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville. Dylan scored two runs in the game.
“How about that? He outplayed his grandfather,” Sanders, the Vermont senator, said afterward. Sanders said it was unusual to have his son, Levi, and his grandson along with him on the trail.
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On the July 4 weekend, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and his family piled into an RV for a three-day swing through Iowa. O’Rourke carried his 8-year-old son Henry on his shoulders through the Fourth of July parade in Independence. He also stopped to regale parade marchers with the tale of the time his other son, 12-year-old Ulysses, got sick after eating too much parade candy.
After an O’Rourke campaign event in Williams, 63-year-old Pauline Lloyd of Union said she likes to have the chance to see the candidates’ families. She said the event had put O’Rourke among the top two candidates she was considering.
“I was talking to one other lady, and I said it kind of reminded me of the Kennedy family,” she said. “They seem like very good kids.”
Of the 20 Democratic presidential candidates remaining in the 2020 primary field, 17 have children. Three have step-children.
Two 2020 candidates who have dropped out of the race, Reps. Seth Moulton and Eric Swalwell, juggled their campaign schedules with caring for infants. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has sons 11 and 15 years old, dropped out of the primary on Aug. 28.
Three of the highest-polling candidates, Joe Biden, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are grandparents.
Kids on the trail in Iowa: A long tradition
This year’s Democratic primary field is the latest in a long line to bring family to Iowa in the first-in-the-nation caucuses cycle.
In 2007, former President Barack Obama was photographed playing games with his daughter, Sasha, on the Midway at the Iowa State Fair. Former Sen. Chris Dodd, another Democratic candidate for president, moved his family to Des Moines that year and enrolled his 6-year-old daughter, Grace, at a local school. An Associated Press report said Grace worried Santa wouldn’t find her in their new home and that their fireplace wouldn’t be big enough for him to fit down.
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Sen. Mitt Romney’s adult sons in 2007 traveled around the state in a Winnebago called the “Mitt Mobile,” blogging about their journey. Hillary and Bill Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, has visited Iowa with both of her parents and was a campaign surrogate during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.
President Donald Trump’s children visited Iowa and played a significant role in his election campaign. At an event he held at Drake University in lieu of participating in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, Trump introduced his family to the crowd and said he had told his pregnant daughter Ivanka, “It would be so great if you had your baby in Iowa.” The crowd applauded. Since Trump’s election, Ivanka Trump has been a presidential adviser, visiting Iowa several times on her own to promote workforce development.
While he wouldn’t go as far as calling it a “strategy,” there can be a dual benefit to bringing children along on the trail, said David Redlawsk, James R. Soles professor and chair of the University of Delaware Department of Political Science and International Relations who’s also written a book about the Iowa caucuses.
Bringing them along allows candidates to spend time with their children during a hectic campaign schedule, but it also can provide a softening of the candidate’s image.
“It’s the sense that he or she is like you and me,” he said. “That, I think, is part of it.”
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Being away from the kids: ‘It sucks’
O’Rourke had fallen into some hot water on March 14, during his first Iowa swing, when he said his wife, Amy, is raising their three children, “sometimes with my help.” Critics said the statement reinforced gender stereotypes. O’Rourke later acknowledged the poor wording, saying he was just trying to acknowledge that she had the “lion’s share” of the responsibility during the campaign.
On his children’s first trip to Iowa, O’Rourke said he was glad to give his children the opportunity to hear some of the stories he had heard during his campaign. At a July 3 stop in Ames, his kids watched from the front of a crowded living room in Ames as their father gave his presidential pitch to 160 Iowans. They took turns sitting on the hardwood floors and standing up, watching his speech and answering questions from attendees.
But the kids got some time to play, too. The trip included carnival rides at a celebration in Clear Lake, the Fourth of July parade in Independence and an Iowa Cubs game and fireworks display in Des Moines.
Andrew Yang said in a Register interview that he’s often on the road 15 to 20 days a month, meaning he can sometimes be away for a week at a time. Bringing his children along on the trail is one way to spend time with them, he said.
“Sometimes I have to go multiple days without seeing them. It sucks,” he said.
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Candidates often share children’s influence
Even when their kids aren’t around, the children of candidates make frequent appearances in their speeches, with candidates sharing the impact they have made on their policies like health care and childcare.
Former Rep. Joe Sestak said he delayed his decision to jump into the race until mid-June because his daughter was battling a return of brain cancer, something she first fought at age four. It’s a fight he has often cited among his motivations to run for political office because he saw others who didn’t have adequate health insurance. He supports a public option in health insurance coverage.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in her stump speech, cites the birth of her daughter, Abigail, as her reason for entering politics. When she was born in 1995, Abigail had a condition that prevented her from swallowing as expected, but Klobuchar said an insurance company rule forced her to be discharged from the hospital 24 hours after Abigail was born. Klobuchar, then a corporate lawyer, successfully lobbied Minnesota state lawmakers to guarantee all new moms and their babies a 48-hour hospital stay.
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Abigail has accompanied her family to several Iowa campaign stops and stars in multiple videos on her mother’s social media pages. On trips to Iowa, Klobuchar introduces her to Iowans by noting she lives in Brooklyn, New York — not Brooklyn, Iowa — where she works for the New York City Council.
In an interview with the Register, Bullock said being a parent influences what he wants to pass on to the next generation of Americans. He said he continually thinks of his family when he makes campaign decisions and is careful to campaign in a way that won’t embarrass his kids. They’ve also affected his policies, he said, from net neutrality to gun control.
During a campaign stop in Oskaloosa, Bullock told residents that daughter Caroline, then 16, once called his office asking what he was going to do about the federal repeal of net neutrality, which requires all users to be treated equally. He said he eventually decided to require Montana’s internet service providers to preserve it for every customer.
“The only thing worse than a disappointed constituent is a disappointed teenage daughter, who doesn’t think you’re very cool, anyway,” he said.
Des Moines Register reporters Teresa Albertson, Nick Coltrain, Robin Opsahl, Donnelle Eller, Shelby Fleig, Stephen Gruber-Miller, Brianne Pfannenstiel and Linh Ta contributed to this report.
Reach Ian Richardson covers at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.