Two candidates officially live with their parents. One rents a room from a contributor. Another won and lost elections in one state, then moved to another in a bid to get back into the U.S. Senate.
From New Orleans to New Hampshire, Republicans and Democrats are questioning each other’s residency details in Senate races that often are close but lack dominant issues. The stakes in the November elections are high: Republicans must gain six more seats to control the 100-member chamber.
Painting a lawmaker as out of touch with the folks back home can prove potent, as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., learned. His aloofness, not his residency, may have been the main reason Cantor lost his primary race, but residency questions are cropping up in several other places.
“You need to do more than talk about where someone lives to prove they’re out of touch,” said Republican strategist Chip Lake of Georgia, where Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn is facing criticism for having grown up in Washington, while her father, Sam Nunn, served in the Senate.
“Is it a fair attack? Probably not,” Lake said of the strategy generally. “But I wouldn’t want to have that argument with voters, in this environment.”
With many races close, the political stakes high and anti-Washington sentiment pervasive, the strategy tends to go like this: When veteran lawmakers are the target, as in Louisiana and Kansas, they’ve “gone Washington,” seduced by the perceived glitz of the nation’s capital over their constituents back home. If younger challengers are targeted, as in Alaska and Arkansas this year, critics paint them as recent arrivals who lack deep and emotional ties to the state.
In Louisiana, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy pounced on a Washington Post story this week noting that Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, lives in Washington with her husband and two children while registered to vote using the New Orleans address where her parents live. The home is owned by a family trust in which the senator has an equal share with her parents and eight siblings.
Cassidy defended the criticism. “Well, it’s symbolic, right?” he said. “She comes down here, she gets re-elected and goes back.”
In a statement, Landrieu said she has lived in the New Orleans home “most of my life and I live there now, when not fulfilling my duties in Washington or serving constituents across the state.” Her aides note that the senator and her husband pay income taxes in Louisiana.
Republicans failed to capitalize on similar residency attacks in the senator’s 2002 and 2008 elections. And her family legacy – her father, Moon, was mayor of New Orleans, and her brother Mitch holds the job now – make it harder to cast her as unconnected.
Meanwhile, Democrats are trying similar tactics elsewhere, including Arkansas. They note that Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, who’s trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, lists as his address a home owned by his father. A campaign aide says the congressman and his wife pay rent to live there.
In New Hampshire, Republicans seeking a challenger to Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen are expected to turn to a former senator – from Massachusetts. Scott Brown, defeated in his bid for re-election in 2012 by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, moved to his vacation home in New Hampshire and registered to vote there before launching his latest Senate campaign. He is favored to win the GOP nomination on Sept. 9 to face Shaheen in the general election.
But for all the effort, the residency tactic often fails.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, for instance, survived a Republican primary challenge this year despite taunts for listing his official address as a contributor’s home, where he rents a room. Roberts did himself no favors in a radio interview, saying: “Every time I get an opponent – I mean, every time I get a chance – I’m home.”
In Mississippi, veteran Republican Sen. Thad Cochran survived a primary challenge in which supporters of his opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, tried to make an issue of his living arrangement in Washington, where Cochran rents a room in the home of a female aide. McDaniel supporters allegedly tried to make an issue of Cochran’s residency by photographing the senator’s bedridden wife, Rose, in a nursing home where she suffers from dementia. Criminal charges were filed against four men, and one of them later committed suicide.
Perhaps the most effective residency-related attack came in 2012 in Indiana. Six-term Sen. Richard Lugar lost the GOP primary amid reports that he listed his official state address as a home he had sold and left decades ago. But Lugar ran a lackluster campaign overall, making it hard to say how much the residency issue contributed to the loss.
Residency questions arise now and then in U.S. House races, often with little impact. The Constitution requires senators and House members to be inhabitants of the state they represent, but House members need not live in their districts.
In California’s June primary, Democratic challenger Ro Khanna noted that seven-term Rep. Mike Honda didn’t live in his district, which was redrawn in 2011. Nonetheless, Honda easily bested Khanna in the state’s all-comers primary. They will face each other again in November because no Republican finished in the top two.