Could Past DC Residency Be Liability for Some Democrats?

Service records can sometimes mitigate carpetbagging attacks

Democrat Tom Malinowski is running for Congress from New Jersey. (Courtesy Tom Malinowski for Congress)
Democrat Tom Malinowski is running for Congress from New Jersey. (Courtesy Tom Malinowski for Congress)
Posted March 6, 2018 at 5:05am

One Democratic hopeful’s ties to the nation’s capital have ignited an intraparty fight in a House primary in Texas, where voters head to the polls Tuesday. But Laura Moser isn’t the only Democratic House candidate who was living in Washington, D.C., during the last election.

Democrats in more than a dozen races around the country could face similar charges of being “Washington insiders.”

“It’s definitely a concern,” said one Democratic strategist, who wondered if the D.C. carpetbagging criticism could disqualify some of the party’s candidates.

“Is it a shorthand to be used to say, ‘This person does not support our values?’” the strategist said.

Not all D.C. connections are the same. Unlike Moser, who was a journalist and activist who once suggested she’d never want to move back to her grandparents’ hometown in Texas, many of this year’s Democratic challengers, including veterans, lived in D.C. because they worked at the Pentagon or the State Department.

Democratic strategists see a big distinction between service-oriented and political careers that take people away from home. If messaged effectively, a return home after a period of service can blunt carpetbagging attacks and possibly even confer an advantage.

But Republicans, and some Democratic primary opponents, aren’t about to pass up the opportunity to attack these recent returnees from D.C. or its suburbs to the districts they’re running in, even if those Democrats grew up there or their families never left.

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D.C. ties

With the unprecedented number of Democratic candidates running for Congress, it’s no surprise that the recruits facing questions about D.C. ties are mostly Democrats.

But it isn’t just members of the minority party. Republican Tim Kane moved back to Ohio in late 2017 to run in the special election for the open 12th District. An Air Force veteran, his career as a think tank economist had him living in California and suburban Virginia, where his family still lives.

But Republicans have already signaled a willingness to attack Democrats, many of them former Obama administration staffers, for recently leaving D.C.

The Congressional Leadership Fund expects to attack at least three former D.C. residents — Dan Feehan, Elissa Slotkin and Tom Malinowski — as part of a broader narrative that they don’t have strong enough ties to their districts.

America Rising, a GOP research firm, found that these three Democrats have received the D.C. homestead tax deduction, which applies to principal residences of District homeowners.

Republicans have already used this line of attack against Slotkin, a former acting assistant Defense secretary who served three tours in Iraq with the CIA. She moved back to Michigan’s 8th District, where her family has a farm, in the spring of 2017. Slotkin’s campaign has said she’s since canceled the deduction and paid the city back for the amount deducted after she moved back to Michigan.

Tom Malinowski, the former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, still owns a home in D.C. but moved to Rocky Hill, New Jersey, close to where he grew up, in September 2017. He’s running in the 7th District.

“Since returning home to New Jersey last fall, that property is no longer his primary residence therefore Tom is currently taking steps to inform the district that he no longer qualifies for the homestead deduction,” Malinowski’s campaign said Monday when told about the tax break.

Feehan, an Iraq War veteran who worked as deputy assistant Defense secretary for readiness, grew up in Red Wing, Minnesota, which used to be in the 1st District. He moved away during high school. After moving back to the state in early 2017, he’s now running in the current 1st District. He sold his D.C. home last year.

Two Texas Democrats also took the deduction: Moser and Gina Ortiz Jones, who’s running in the 23rd District. The Iraq War veteran and former Defense Intelligence Agency official had most recently worked for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Ortiz Jones said claiming the deduction was an oversight.

America Rising and other GOP groups are also collecting other hits on candidates who recently moved from D.C.

Sometimes the opposition research attacks about residency are rooted in less official documents.

The Washington Free Beacon recently ran a story suggesting that North Carolina-born RD Huffstetler, a former chief of staff to Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, suddenly acquired a southern drawl for his run for Virginia’s 5th District. Before moving to Washington to work for Moulton, the Marine veteran lived in California where he founded a tech company.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has criticized Scott Wallace, who wants to take on Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, as a “multimillionaire Washington insider.” Wallace owns his childhood home in the new 1st District, but he and his wife were based in the D.C. area when running the Wallace Global Fund.

Other Democrats could find themselves on the receiving end of similar attacks.

Andy Kim, a former Obama National Security Council staffer, moved back in early 2017 to Marlton, New Jersey, where he’s running in the 3rd District.

Alison Friedman, an anti-human trafficking activist who worked at the State Department until 2015, moved from D.C. to McLean, Virginia, in April 2017. She’s running in the crowded Democratic primary for Virginia’s 10th District. (Although it’s her California ties — she worked for former Rep. Jane Harman and has raised lots of money from the state — that have inspired GOP attacks.)

Iraq War veteran Maura Sullivan served as an assistant secretary in Obama’s Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. She moved from D.C. to New Hampshire in the summer of 2017, but that was only after entertaining the idea of running for Congress in two districts in her native Illinois.

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Won’t always stick

But the GOP can’t easily deploy the carpetbagging attack in every race. In some districts, GOP incumbents have carpetbagging pasts — of varying degrees — and launching such an attack risks relitigating their own ties to the district.

Democrat Lauren Baer, a former senior policy adviser at the State Department and U.S. mission to the United Nations, lived in D.C. and New York City before moving back in the summer of 2017 to Florida’s 18th District, where her family owns a furniture business.

The NRCC seized on her recent return to the district and the fact that most of her early donations came from outside the 18th, comparing her strategy to that of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, who lost a special election last year.

But Democrats aren’t expecting Republicans in the district to use a carpetbagging playbook against Baer since GOP incumbent Brian Mast moved to Florida from Michigan several years before running for Congress.

And in Indiana, Democrat Liz Watson is running for the 9th District after moving back to the state from D.C., where she was most recently chief labor counsel for the Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Republicans may try to tie her to D.C., but attacking her as a carpetbagger could backfire since the GOP incumbent Trey Hollingsworth has tenuous ties to the district.

Likewise in New Jersey, any GOP attacks against Kim over residency issues may not resonate since Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur had been attacked as a carpetbagger for moving into the 3rd District before his 2014 campaign.

Service shield

The carpetbagging criticism could be especially difficult to launch against Democratic candidates who left the district to serve their country.

“Americans understand that service to country can take you many places, including away from the community in which you’d most like to live,” said Emily Cherniack, the founder of New Politics, a bipartisan group that backs candidates with service backgrounds.

Two Democratic strategists pointed out that the party attempted to criticize Pennsylvania’s Fitzpatrick in 2016 for moving to the district from California, where he had worked for the FBI. But the attack didn’t stick. Republicans could have the same problem when criticizing Democratic candidates with military or intelligence backgrounds this year.

“It really depends on why you were gone and how you handled your home place while you were gone,” a Democratic strategist said.

Feehan’s campaign, for example, welcomes the question about where he’s been because it gives it an opportunity to talk about his military service in Iraq.

Those candidates who worked in government, including in the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill, have also pointed to their previous work as a form of public service.

One Democratic strategist suggested candidates try to get in front of the issue by emphasizing family ties in an opening ad, or highlighting issues and landmarks.

For example, Jessica Morse, who worked at the Defense and State departments during the Obama administration, returned to California’s 4th District to challenge GOP Rep. Tom McClintock. Morse points out on her website that she is a fifth-generation Californian and her campaign logo also appears to include an image of the Half Dome, a landmark in Yosemite National Park, which is in the district.

The challenge for these candidates is to define themselves early on in the campaign.

“In a multicandidate primary, while you’re trying to edge your way in, you want to be known for something,” one Democratic strategist said. “You don’t want to be the person who’s only known as the carpetbagger.”