Who You Calling a Carpetbagger?
Political rhetoric gauge alert: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
The meter surged Tuesday morning when the House GOP campaign organization lambasted one of the year’s most prominent and best-financed Democratic challengers, 27-year-old venture capitalist Sean Eldridge, for “not even trying to hide the fact that he isn’t living in” the upstate New York district where he’s running. “Eldridge’s open contempt for the place he supposedly wants to represent is appalling,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ian Prior declared.
The news release could easily be dismissed as just another bit of routine springtime campaign hyperventilating. But the histrionics sounded exceptionally hypocritical for this reason: Eldridge was lambasted by an NRCC that is fully aware several of its own top 2014 prospects do not live in their prospective districts, either. Businessman Will Brooke has become a top contender for the safely Republican seat in Alabama from which Rep. Spencer Bachus is retiring. He was propelled to national attention by one of the year’s most provocative campaign spots, in which he shoots holes (Get it?) in a copy of the 2010 health care law using a variety of weapons from his own arsenal. (See the ad at the bottom of this post.) But in just the past week, his rivals have started ribbing him for what he says is the belated realization that the most recent redistricting placed his suburban Birmingham home several hundred yards outside the 6th District.
That’s nothing compared to the commuting distances confronted by both GOP candidates hoping to succeed retiring Rep. Jon Runyan in a district that stretches across the middle of New Jersey. (Democrat Aimee Belgard, a county legislator who’s already got one of the best opportunities in the country to pick up a seat for the party this year, given the area’s voting history, lives in the political heart of the 3rd District.)
The GOP establishment’s choice, Tom McArthur, just finished his run as the mayor of a small city that’s 60 miles away from his nearest would-be constituents. His primary challenger, three-time insurgent conservative statewide candidate Steve Lonegan , stepped down five years ago as mayor of a suburb that’s 72 miles by car from the closest town he’d represent in Congress. Ironically, as the GOP nominee in last year’s special Senate election, one of Lonegan’s final campaign moves was asserting without any hard evidence that his opponent, Democrat Cory Booker, did not live in Newark even though he was the mayor.
Brooke, McArthur and Lonegen all say they’re in the process of getting new places to call their official homes, and they’re rushing to complete those expensive efforts at political damage control before they face the voters. (Both primaries are June 3 — see our primary cheat sheet here .)
A hard-to-count, but still considerable, number of House candidates are not bothering. Many, if not most, of them are incumbent congressmen for whom “back home” is a precinct where their name is not on the ballot — often (but hardly always) thanks to redistricting since their initial victories. A proportional share are presumably Republicans, which underscores the potential risk in getting aggressive on the “He’s not really from here” front.
Every civics student ought to know that members of the House do not have to live or vote in the districts they represent; the Constitution only requires that at the time of their election they be “an inhabitant of that state in which [they] shall be chosen.”
As a practical matter, though, not being one of your own constituents has been a politically complicating factor — if not a downright liability — ever since the word “carpetbagger” became part of the political lexicon. (That was during Reconstruction, when the term came to refer to Northerners who headed South and gained considerable political leverage at the expense of the long-timers.)
In modern politics, challenging a statewide candidate’s credentials based on time in residence hasn’t actually worked that often. Democrats Robert F. Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Hillary Rodham Clinton all got to represent newly adopted home states in the Senate, to cite only a few of the more obvious examples.
And this year, it’s still up in the air whether Sen. Pat Roberts’ renting of a room from a Republican contributor in Kansas (because his family long ago resettled to the Virginia suburbs) will cripple his chances for a fourth term, or whether former GOP Sen. Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts can win up the road in New Hampshire — and become the first person since the 1870s to represent more than one state in the Senate.
In the House, the most interesting carpetbagging case probably isn’t going to be Eldridge’s challenge to GOP Rep. Chris Gibson’s bid for a third term. That’s because Tuesday’s NRCC missives were based on a single not-totally-germane fact. They went after Eldridge because his husband, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, cited an address in an adjacent congressional district when he donated to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign in North Carolina.
And it’s well known by now that several years ago the couple started looking for a Hudson Valley home from which Eldridge could launch a congressional bid — and ended up spending a combined $7 million on two houses, because the first place ended up being not an ideal political match. If a label’s going to drag him down, it’s that he’s a “1-percenter trying to buy a seat,” not that he’s an interloper.
Instead, the most prominent House race involving an out-of-towner on the move is shaping up in north-central Indiana, where GOP Rep. Jackie Walorski is still favored to win a second term. Democratic strategists and donors have lined up behind Notre Dame professor Joe Bock ahead of next week’s primary — even though he moved to South Bend less than a decade ago after spending much of his adult life in Missouri, where he was a state legislator in the 1980s.
Brooke’s Obamacare ad: