Out of touch? Senate candidates under fire for where they live

Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire is in a tight race for her Senate seat.
Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire is in a tight race for her Senate seat. McClatchy

The elections for control of the Senate could hinge as much on where some candidates live as on how they vote.

Residency controversies are dogging Senate candidates in several pivotal states: Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, and New Hampshire. Some list Washington, not the states that elect them, as their home addresses. Others moved into their states only recently, prompting criticism that they’re just using the states as a way to get to D.C.

This is at a time when it’s particularly toxic to look too Washington. Congress’ approval ratings are hovering around 14 percent, while roughly 70 percent of voters see the country on the wrong track.

“It’s possible that in a highly nationalized political environment, charges that incumbents have lost touch with their constituents resonate particularly well,” said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress and legislative politics at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “Voters don’t like to be forgotten, and challengers are eager to find ways to put incumbents on the defensive.”

Already this year, the out-of-touch charge helped topple House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who seemed more interested in Washington than his district and lost a primary this year to little-known professor David Brat. Two years ago, similar controversy helped end the 36-year Senate career of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who faces re-election this year, has struggled to answer questions about where he calls home, telling a radio interviewer he returns to Kansas whenever he gets an opponent.

The senator owns no home in Kansas and was registered to vote at the home of a constituent, where, Roberts said, he paid rent.

The issue surfaced again last week during a debate. “I suspect, senator, I’ve been to Dodge City more times this year than you have,” said challenger Greg Orman, an independent. He said he’d been to Roberts’ hometown four times recently. Well, interrupted Roberts, I’ve been there seven times recently.

Similar controversies have surfaced elsewhere:

– Alaska. Dan Sullivan, the Republican former state attorney general who’s challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, moved to the state 17 years ago. Sullivan went to Washington in 2002 to work for the National Security Council and, later, the State Department. He kept his home in Alaska and returned to the state in 2009.

“Dan’s a Marine whose service to his country has taken him throughout the world, and for Mark Begich to attack him for his service is not only wrong, but it’s a direct affront to the servicemen and women who also call Alaska home,” said campaign spokesman Mike Anderson.

– Arkansas. Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, who’s in a neck-and-neck battle for the Senate against Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor, doesn’t own property in the state. He does point out his sixth-generation state roots, noting that he lives in a home his father owns. He’s running an ad, filmed in front of that house, where he pledges, “I’ll stay connected to my roots.”

Pryor features his father, David Pryor, a former governor and senator, in an ad to help bolster his state ties.

It could matter in a close race. “It’s a small matter, but something the Pryor people are positioned to take advantage of,” said Arkansas Poll director Janine Parry.

– Louisiana. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is in a close re-election fight and facing criticism for maintaining a posh Capitol Hill home with her husband, listing that address on her statement of candidacy filed Aug. 11 with the Federal Election Commission.

Republicans tried to get her off the ballot, saying she didn’t fulfill residency requirements, but a Louisiana judge dismissed the suit last week. Landrieu said she still lived in Louisiana. She, her siblings and their mother jointly own the family home in New Orleans where she grew up.

“I have lived at my home on Prieur Street most of my life and I live there now, when not fulfilling my duties in Washington or serving constituents across the state,” she said. She’s survived similar charges in past campaigns.

– Mississippi. In his statement of candidacy with the FEC on May 9, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran listed his address as 218-A Maryland Ave. on Capitol Hill in Washington. In February, in a new filing, he listed his address as Oxford, Miss., where he owns a home.

Republican primary challenger Chris McDaniel based his campaign on Cochran being too intimate with Washington. Elect me, McDaniel would say, and I’ll return to the state frequently. Cochran won a runoff, however.

While the issue may have singed Cochran, he fought back by citing the projects, or earmarks, he’d obtained for the state during his four decades in Congress. “That money could be used to build a bridge somewhere so people could cross the creek to get to church,” said Marty Wiseman, a Starkville, Miss., political analyst.

– New Hampshire. Sen. Scott Brown represented Massachusetts in the Senate from 2010 until 2013, but now he’s running for the Senate in neighboring New Hampshire.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, locked in a tight race with Brown, is reminding voters of his background in another state. “This is my home. This is where my kids grew up,” she has said. “My goal has been to serve the people of New Hampshire, not to serve myself.”

Brown might benefit from the influx of Massachusetts residents into the state. Among those who live near that state’s border, he has a 22 percentage-point edge over Shaheen in the latest WMUR Granite State poll.

– Kansas. Roberts spent a total of 97 days from July 2011 to August 2013 in the state, according to his Senate spending records.

Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party executive director, said this shouldn’t be an issue for voters. “If you send a guy to Washington, D.C., to work for you there, do you want him always back in Kansas watching TV?” Barker said. “His workplace is D.C.”

The controversy lingers. “I think the residency will haunt him all the way up through Election Day,” said Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka. “It’s just like a ghost that won’t go away.”