How Republicans Are Publicly Embracing Their Wives' Influence for 2016

Politicians' spouses are taking increasingly public roles in campaigns—and that's good news for the GOP.

Two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney's recent ode to his wife, Ann, wasn't subtle. Using the publishing platform Medium, he wrote an open letter to his wife of 45 years, topped with a photo of himself taken around 1968 on a mission trip to France. Inside a heart drawn in the sand, Romney declared: "I love Ann."

Wives of politicians have always had an important private role, especially in their husbands' decision to run and during subsequent campaigns. But the current slate of GOP presidential hopefuls have been smartly celebrating their wives' influence more publicly.

Politicians' spouses increasingly have been freed from standing dutifully behind the lectern at campaign events. They have been tasked with actively rallying for causes and giving stump speeches, often apart from their candidate partners, and they've needed to adopt more of a vocal, public image.

As the GOP battles the narrative that it doesn't help women, it makes sense for Republican candidates, or potential candidates, to trumpet their wives' influence. Take former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who told the Associated Press on Tuesday that his wife, Columba, was "supportive" of his potential 2016 bid. Notoriously publicity-averse, Columba has had some donors and supporters worried that she might convince her husband to sit the presidential election out.

"The family issues are Columba, 1, 2, and 3," a Bush confidante told The Washington Post in May, referring to Jeb's hesitance to run because of concern for how a campaign would affect his family. "It's whether she's up for it."

Columba, a Mexican-born philanthropist who directs part of her husband's education foundation, has said she never sought the public eye when she married her husband. She was pushed to speak publicly during Bush's first year in office, after she failed to declare $19,000 worth of clothes and jewelry she bought on a trip to Paris and was detained by U.S. Customs. In her apology for the incident, she said she "did not ask to join a famous family." But a successful Bush campaign would require, in part, Columba's active participation despite her intensely private manner.

Kelley Ashby, a former GOP consultant and wife of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, voiced her opinion—chiefly, her reservations—about her husband launching a presidential bid in a Vogue profile last year. She's since softened her stance, allowing that the couple needed to keep talking about it, but Rand's top political adviser told The New Yorker earlier this month that she would have the final say: "Unless Kelley says no, he's running." Kelley's publicly relaxed attitude about Rand's probable White House bid surely helps his fledgling campaign.

Ann Romney is less conciliatory than Kelley has been. A day before her husband published his romantic love letter, Ann told the Los Angeles Times she was completely "done" with presidential campaigns.

"Not only Mitt and I are done, but the kids are done," she said. "Done. Done. Done."

Though Romney has recently taken to giving ambiguous answers on whether he'd launch a third presidential bid, Ann said they'd make that decision together.

Ann and the other wives of possible 2016ers will have to grapple with their public persona as the election draws nearer. For Republican candidates, putting a focus on spousal involvement on the campaign trail is a smart strategy—as long as their wives agree.