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Do charges of carpetbagging still matter? A number of 2022 elections may provide an answer

<i>Getty</i><br/>Do charges of carpetbagging still matter? A number of 2022 elections may provide an answer.
Do charges of carpetbagging still matter? A number of 2022 elections may provide an answer.

By Dan Merica, CNN

Political candidates across the country this year have been forced to defend their ties to the states they hope to represent.

Whether those attacks are nearly as potent as they once were, however, is an open question. Political operatives and academics argue that recent shifts in politics, including a hyper-partisan electorate where party identification is the most important factor in the minds of voters and a reality that almost every political race has become nationalized, have made residency attacks far less powerful than they once were, especially in a general election.

“Opponents in a primary can make a big deal of them and they can hurt you. But because we’re so polarized, because we don’t have conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, once you get that nomination, I think most people in your party are going to come home and vote for you,” said Christopher Galdieri, the author of “Stranger in a Strange State: The Politics of Carpetbagging from Robert Kennedy to Scott Brown.”

Republican Senate campaigns are rife with residency questions. In Pennsylvania’s GOP primary, several candidates — most notably Dr. Mehmet Oz — have had their ties to the Keystone State scrutinized. Georgia US Senate candidate Herschel Walker lived in Texas until recently. And Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has taken aim at her primary opponent, Kelly Tshibaka, over how long she has called Alaska home.

But the trend is not just in Senate campaigns.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is running to again represent Montana in Congress after he left his seat to serve in the Trump administration, has fielded repeated attacks that he no longer fully lives in Montana but instead spends most of his time in Santa Barbara, California.

And since former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof announced a run for governor of Oregon — the state where he was born and raised — some have raised questions about his ties to the Beaver State on whether he meets the Oregon Constitution’s standard for gubernatorial candidates.

Charges of carpetbagging have been part of American politics for more than 150 years. The term, coined after the Civil War, was primarily used to describe Northerners who traveled to the South to start businesses and eventually run for office.

Candidates from outside a state have won in earlier decades: Hillary Clinton became a senator from New York in 2001 after spending most of her life in Illinois, Arkansas and Washington, DC; Robert Kennedy became a senator from New York in 1965 despite his family being famously from Massachusetts; and Mitt Romney became a senator from Utah in 2019 despite serving as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Even with these successes, a candidate’s ties — or lack thereof — to an area have long been seen as a potent barb, one that allows an opponent to question a candidate’s knowledge of their constituents and label them as out of touch.

Even as the sheer number of candidates with suspect links to their desired constituents in 2022 is fueling these questions, candidates take the critiques seriously.

When reporters and political opponents raised questions about whether then-New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams actually lived in the city, the Brooklyn Borough president took the attacks so seriously that he led reporters on a bizarre tour of his basement apartment on Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that included a look inside his fridge.

“How foolish would someone have to be to run to be the mayor of the city of New York and live in another municipality,” Adams said at the time. “It’s 101 that someone is going to follow me throughout this entire campaign.”

Primary vs. general

Attacks around residency issues have changed in recent years, said Galdieri, a professor at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College. While they may have become less potent in a general election — when voters are more concerned now about party identity than just about anything else — they are more threatening in a primary.

Galdieri said the clearest example of this was the race between Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Scott Brown in 2014. Brown had represented neighboring Massachusetts in the Senate from 2010 to 2013, but after Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren defeated him in the 2012 election, Brown decided to hop across the border and run against Shaheen. Accusations of being a carpetbagger became a central attack against him, but the Republican easily won the party’s nomination and ran a tight race against Shaheen, losing by around 3 percentage points.

More notable to Galdieri, however, was that Shaheen, even though she was running against someone who had represented another state the year prior, was held to the same share of the vote she had received six years earlier, when she won her first term.

“It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win, but I think you’re going to probably not perform that much worse than generic Republican or generic Democrat in your race,” Galdieri said.

Even campaigns engaged in some of these attacks acknowledged that they aren’t as powerful as years past.

Tom Winter is one of a few Democrats looking to challenge Zinke’s bid to represent Montana in Congress. In a tweet that has now gone viral, Winter takes a selfie video while walking along a street in Whitefish, Montana, to “see where Ryan Zinke supposedly lives.”

“But it turns out, guys, that it’s a hotel,” Winter says, panning to a sign for the Snowfrog Inn before he delivers what has become a familiar attack against the former interior secretary: The Republican splits time between Montana and a home in California.

Heather Swift, Zinke’s campaign manager, dismissed any implication that Montana isn’t Zinke’s home, arguing that the Republican and his family built their home in Whitefish when the would-be congressman was still in the military and hoped to one day run it as a bed-and-breakfast. That never happened — “He was pretty busy representing Montana in Congress and as secretary,” said Swift — but it has become one of the most persistent attacks against Zinke since he began running for public office.

“Political opponents tried this stupid lie in 2014 and it didn’t work,” Swift said. “If they want to waste their time and money on it, have at it.”

Blake Cilwick, Winter’s campaign manager, admitted that these attacks against Zinke have failed before, but added that part of the goal is to stir up more recent bipartisan resentment in Montana against out-of-staters — particularly those from California — changing the Mountain West state.

“Zinke has been seemingly immune to this before. But it feels different this time around,” Cilwick said, pointing to the resentment Montanans have toward what out-of-staters are doing to housing prices in Western Montana.

‘I came home a year ago’

Even if the potency of the attacks has diminished, campaigns forced to respond to residency questions are quick to do so, a sign that they worry about the impact they could have in a primary.

When Oz announced his Senate campaign in November, one of the swiftest Democratic attacks was that the television doctor actually lived in New Jersey, citing a 2020 People Magazine feature on his “New Jersey mansion” that featured sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, the New Jersey congressman who represents the area, sarcastically congratulated “my North Jersey constituent” on his run in Pennsylvania, while Malcom Kenyatta, one of the Democrats vying for the seat, tweeted, “Dr. Oz (R-NJ) has no business running for Senate here in Pennsylvania or back home in New Jersey.”

Asked about questions around Oz’s Pennsylvania residency, a campaign spokesperson said the candidate “returned home to Pennsylvania last year,” noting that the doctor had attended medical and business school in Philadelphia and met and married his wife there. The spokesperson called the attacks “a distraction from the fact our opponents on both sides know Dr. Oz is a formidable challenger.”

“I came home a year ago,” Oz said in a Fox News interview. “It feels good to be back.”

Oz isn’t the only candidate in the Pennsylvania US Senate Republican primary with questioned ties to the state. Carla Sands, an ambassador under former President Donald Trump, recently lived in California and was a delegate from that state for Sen. Ted Cruz during the 2016 Republican National Convention. And David McCormick, a hedge fund manager who was born in Pennsylvania, is said to be considering a bid, despite living in Connecticut for years.

“The lack of any strong candidates in this Pennsylvania GOP Senate field has attracted wealthy out-of-staters who see the field’s dysfunction as an opportunity to buy a Senate seat,” said Jack Doyle, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “Whoever limps out of this primary is going to be seriously damaged for the general.”

But possibly the most brash candidate with residency questions is Walker, the former University of Georgia star running back who recently returned to his home state from Texas to mount a Senate bid backed by Trump.

Walker has lived in Texas for years, the state where he spent much of his professional football career with the Dallas Cowboys. He registered to vote in Georgia in August, as he was on the cusp of announcing a Senate bid.

“Herschel’s wife Julie owns a home in Atlanta, GA which is where they live and spend the majority of their time when they are not traveling the state campaigning,” Mallory Blount, spokesperson for the Walker campaign, said in a statement to CNN. “Herschel will always consider his home to be Wrightsville, GA where he grew up, where his family lives, and where he owns property.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Oregon’s state nickname. It’s the Beaver State.

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