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The Out-of-Towners

Candidates Try to Reach Voters

Most political candidates boast about their hometown roots in order to woo support and appeal to undecided voters.

But every election cycle, there are at least a few Congressional candidates who don’t live in the districts they want to represent. For them, the challenge is proving to voters that they do have close ties to the district — while at the same time fending off attacks from opponents who try to label them carpetbaggers.

Can these political “outsiders” succeed?

“I think it depends on how attached they are to local communities more than geographical boundaries,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said. “The bigger issue is what connection the individual has overall.”

Jason Chaffetz, who is facing Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) today in a Republican primary, lives two miles outside the 3rd district. While Cannon has regularly hit his opponent on the residency issue, Chaffetz, a former chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), notes that his Utah County home was in the 3rd district until 2001, when Congressional lines were redrawn.

In fact, Chaffetz does not shy away from the controversy, maintaining that voters are more concerned with pocketbook issues such as the housing crisis and the economy.

“I’m fine with him harping on it. Cannon crying about my address doesn’t win any votes,” he said.

Democrat Dan Seals, a DCCC darling in a rematch with four-term Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), was taunted in his first campaign in 2006 for living outside the suburban 10th district, and the charge has come up again this cycle. Seals counters that Kirk, an Iraq War supporter, is out of touch with the moderate district, which voted 53 percent for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election.

Seals, who lives in Wilmette, less than two blocks outside the 10th district, pledged to move into the North Shore district if he wins in November. He grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Kirk is a product of the North Shore and frequently points out that he attended New Trier High School, located in the heart of the district.

In a closely watched race in which both candidates are expected to spend millions of dollars, the matter of a few blocks could cost Seals, who lost 53 percent to 47 percent in 2006, precious votes. “It may be just a little bit [of distance], but not when you don’t even have ties to the district,” an Illinois GOP aide said.

In Chicago’s south suburbs, Republican Martin Ozinga is waging an uphill campaign to replace retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R). While he lives in a neighboring district represented by Rep. Judy Biggert (R), Ozinga maintains he is more closely tied to the 11th, where he runs a family-owned concrete business with 1,200 employees.

“I’m a local person. We’ve been involved in the community for years,” Ozinga said.

While Ozinga charges that the Democratic nominee, state Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, is too liberal for the Republican-leaning district, Halvorson has refrained from making her opponent’s residency an issue, focusing instead on her decade of experience in the state Senate.

“I’ll leave that up to [Halvorson], who has been part of that community for years,” Van Hollen said of the strategy on Ozinga’s residency.

Federal law requires that House Members be at least 25 years old, a United States citizen for at least seven years and a resident of the state — but not the district — in which they are elected.

Operatives in both parties acknowledge that all things being equal, candidates who hail from the district are preferable to ones who don’t. Candidate recruiting, however, can be a grueling and fruitless process, and finding a party loyalist with the right pedigree and fundraising abilities can be enough to overcome anxiety over a candidate’s address.

In the case of Ozinga, he “is probably well enough connected in the district because of his business,” a Republican aide said.

Seals and Ozinga hope to overcome exactly what a fellow Illinoisan, Rep. Melissa Bean (D), did in 2004. The political neophyte ran an uphill campaign to oust a long-serving incumbent in a district where she did not live.

Republicans regularly advertised that Bean lived in Kirk’s district, and by extension could not even vote for herself in the election, but the Democrat overcame the claims by charging that the incumbent, Rep. Phil Crane (R), spent more time inside the Beltway than out in the district.

“Ultimately it all comes down to a candidate’s ability to connect with the voters,” said Ken Spain, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “You have to make a case that speaks to the interests and concerns of the electorate, and a strong candidate — regardless of geography — will likely find a way to do so.”

California state Sen. Tom McClintock (R) might be this cycle’s most glaring example of a candidate running for Congress outside his home district. A long-serving state lawmaker, McClintock represents a Southern California district nearly 350 miles from the suburban Sacramento 4th Congressional district seat being vacated by Rep. John Doolittle (R).

McClintock was raised in the state Senate district he currently represents and invoked his hometown roots during every re-election bid. Because California state lawmakers work full time, McClintock has a residence in the 4th district, where his family lives. And as a past candidate for state controller, lieutenant governor and governor, McClintock’s name has appeared on the ballot statewide seven times, which he says will serve him well appealing to voters in the 4th district.

Like his fellow out-of-district candidates, McClintock has focused on building a grass-roots network and key endorsements to validate him in the Northern California district.

“People care far more about where a candidate stands than where a candidate lives,” he said.

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