Under Pressure

Brian Robinson, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s (R-Ga.) campaign press secretary, is sitting pretty this election season.

Brian Robinson, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s (R-Ga.) campaign press secretary, is sitting pretty this election season.

His boss is in a safe seat so he happily whiles away the recess time in Columbus, Ga., the heart of his boss’s district.

Two years ago, however, Robinson recalls, “I was in one of those marginal districts and life was a living hell.”

Politics is rarely a stable career choice. Every two or six years the tide can change wildly, leaving members and aides stripped of lofty titles and scrambling for jobs. For many aides this election season, the stress is exceedingly high with Democrats poised to capture the majority and, as some have predicted, as many as 40 House seats. Some GOP offices are reportedly in “meltdown” mode with aides “freaking out” at the prospect of their bosses losing.

So why do it? Working in such an unpredictable profession is a choice many aides make for the greater cause of changing the world and the desire to make a difference. The lack of job security is tough, they say, but they can’t imagine not taking the risk. Some, like Robinson, ultimately flee the more erratic, swing districts. When he worked for his former boss, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), he felt isolated and stressed and left for a lawmaker with a more stable district.

“I didn’t want to be in a swing seat anymore,” he says, explaining that securing a job with Westmoreland came easily. His roommate at the University of Georgia was Trey Westmoreland, his boss’s son.

Gingrey now occupies a safely Republican district, but two years ago his fate in Congress was anyone’s guess.

“It was very scary, really,” says Robinson. “When you live in Washington and you have a mortgage and your income is threatened at the ballot box, you’re fighting for more than your beliefs. You’re fighting for food.”

That may be a bit of an exaggeration. After all, aides’ chances of getting the next job are not directly linked to whether their boss won or lost. But if a sudden job loss occurs, the question of being able to pay the high mortgage that owning a home in Washington usually entails is very real. You can hear the traces of stress in Robinson’s voice as memories come flooding back. Going into that last week of the campaign, he recalls, the polls were shaky — and so was he.

“You just didn’t know,” he says. “It was extraordinarily stressful. When you’re in a marginal district you feel like your every move could be critical. You live with constant pressure and a constant feeling of never doing enough. The feeling eats away at you.”

Such is the case in Rep. Richard Pombo’s (R-Calif.) office, where, according to a source close to the office, the  whole office is in near “meltdown” over the prospect of Pombo losing.

However, Brian Kennedy, Pombo’s spokesman, says, “That’s absolutely absurd. No one is freaking out about anything.  Richard Pombo is going to win.”

Some aides like Robinson don’t care for pressure-cooker politics — others thrive on it. But it can take a toll on your health, as many former campaign staffers attest, after surviving on coffee, doughnuts, barbecue, pizza, cheeseburgers and far too much beer.

One GOP House staffer has dispatched himself to a tough race in Iowa’s 12th District between Mike Whalen (R) and Bruce Braley (D). His own boss will be reelected, but he wanted to help the party.

The staffer has managed to avoid all the typical ways campaign aides let themselves go. His living conditions are basic — he resides at a roadside motel in Dubuque and eats his meals at McDonald’s and at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery.

But his behavior on the road is hardly the norm. Each morning he rises at 6:30 and gets in an hour of cardio at the gym. Afterward, he heads over to county party headquarters to help out with the phone banks. He drinks protein shakes for breakfast and eats energy bars he brought from home.

“I don’t eat any food in campaign offices,” he says, mentioning the sandwiches, chips and Cinnabons he carefully avoids.

When he goes to McDonald’s, he eats a healthy chicken salad. “I try to avoid eating carbs as much as possible,” he says.

This GOP aide, a seasoned campaign worker, has worked on a governor’s race, two House races and Bush-Cheney ’04.

“You try to work hard, and know you’re representing your party and your member,” he says. “People look up to you like you’re a solid person.”

Like many campaign aides, he finds himself alone a lot working the phones.  “There’s a lot of solitary time,” he says. “You eat your meals alone, you make your calls alone. I’m fine with it. I don’t feel stressed. We assume winning will take care of itself.”

Bryan Anderson, Rep. Gil Gutknecht’s (R-Minn.) campaign spokesman, is deeply involved in the fight for his boss’s reelection this campaign season, but you wouldn’t know he’s stressed from how he talks. He’s all positive, all the time.

“I wouldn’t say it’s difficult,” Anderson says. “It’s exciting. The congressman is traveling around the district, and it’s a good opportunity to get out and find out what people are talking about.”

Anderson says his days running around Rochester, Minn., are long, but it’s not taxing because he says he’s working for a cause he believes in.

“A lot of people who are in this business feel strongly about the positions and the ideology of their candidate,” he says. “That’s how people working for Gil feel. It’s not about just the individual candidate — it’s about an ideology you believe in.

“The voters will make the decisions. The voters are always right.”

Oh yeah? Even if the boss loses?

“I’m supremely confident that the congressman is going to win,” says Anderson. “I know the people here. I know their values. The congressman shares those values.”

Many aides working in toss-up races declined to comment for this story. For instance, Matt Lambert, spokesman for Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) , who faces a difficult reelection, refused to speak about his stress, saying, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about that.”

Another GOP aide whose East Coast boss is in serious jeopardy this election cycle agreed to speak, but only anonymously. Before coming out on the campaign trail about a week ago, this legislative assistant was listening to predictions that his boss, along with 30 other Republican members, was going to lose.

“Being up here I feel much better about it,” he says, explaining that his daily duties include passing out campaign literature at grocery stores and train stations.

The aide, who is staying on his parents’ couch but barely sleeps, said he mentally blocks the possibility of his boss losing.

“You know, I try not to think about it, truthfully,” he says. “If it happens, I’ll deal with it then.”

The unpredictable nature of his job doesn’t bother him, he says.

“It adds an element of surprise every now and then, but what are you going to do? Everyone’s forecasting an apocalypse for Republicans but when you get here you’re hearing folks say a lot of nice things about your boss.”

Robinson, Westmoreland’s aide, thinks about his friends working in tight races and says, “My heart is with them. It is ‘Chicken Little’ — the sky is falling. Every time you see [an attack ad] it’s like a punch in the stomach.”

Robinson admits he’s high-strung and the type who “hemorrhages” weight during a rough campaign.

“I ended up spending too much time alone,” he says. “You don’t want to talk to anyone. At the end of the day you just want to decompress. I would just leave and go to the gym and work out for as long as I could. It’s the only thing you can do to relieve the pressure that’s on you.”