Democratic congressional candidate Jessica Morse hadn’t even advanced to the general election when her campaign began airing an ad hitting Republican Rep. Tom McClintock on his residency.
“In ten years, Tom McClintock has never voted for himself, because he doesn’t live in our district,” a narrator said, as pictures of the 4th District congressman flashed onto the screen.
It’s not a new attack line. McClintock’s opponents have tagged him as a carpetbagger ever since the longtime state legislator from Ventura County moved up to Northern California to run for a vacant congressional seat in 2008. McClintock’s Democratic rival in that race labeled him an “opportunistic career politician who needs driving directions just to find our district.”
McClintock still won, in a nail-biter. He’s cruised to reelection since, despite never actually moving into the district, which stretches from Lake Tahoe south to Kings Canyon and includes the Sacramento suburb of Roseville.
Federal law does not require members of Congress to live in the districts they represent, as long as they live in the state. California may soon make it easier for state legislators to do the same, if Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill that passed the Legislature last month.
McClintock lives in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento that is a 20 to 30 minute drive from the nearest town inside district lines. Fellow California Republican Mimi Walters lives just outside the boundary of her Orange County district. So do Los Angeles County Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Grace Napolitano.
A candidate’s out-of-district residency is a popular target for opposing campaigns. Republicans hammered Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff mercilessly last year for living a 10-minute drive from the suburban Atlanta district where he was running. Ossoff narrowly lost a special election for the Republican-leaning district.
Candidates also take heat for only recently moving into the district. Earlier this year, national Democrats attacked one of their own House candidates, Laura Moser, on that front, claiming she “begrudgingly moved to Houston to run for Congress.”
Political experts, however, question how much impact the issue of residency has on voters’ attitudes. “I don’t think it matters that much,” said David Wasserman, the House editor at the Cook Political Report, a political handicapper. “Voters are mostly focused on what will affect their everyday lives, they tend to be less attached to process.”
McClatchy spoke to a number of political strategists who echoed that opinion. They said it was particularly true in areas of suburban sprawl, like Southern California, where residents often don’t know where one congressional district begins and the other ends.
At the same time, they say highlighting a candidate’s residency — whether they live outside the district or only recently moved there — can feed into a broader narrative. “I really think it comes down to, do the voters feel the person they’re voting for shares their values and understands their community,” said Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman.
The issue has come to the fore in 2018, with the “resistance” to President Trump prompting a new generation of Democrats to move back to their childhood homes to run for office.
Josh Harder, the Democrat running against Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in the Modesto area 10th District, is one example. The Turlock native and Modesto High School grad left the area to attend college at Stanford, went onto graduate school at Harvard and then spent three years working at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Denham’s campaign regularly refers to him as “Bay Area Harder,’ in an attempt to paint the 31-year-old challenger as an out-of-touch liberal.
But Denham has had to respond to carpetbagger accusations of his own. He represented Monterey County, as well as parts of the Central Valley, in the state Senate, and used to live in Salinas. He still owns a plastics company that is headquartered there.
“@JeffDenham, you started your political career in Monterey,” Harder tweeted in June.
“I make no secrets about it – I moved to this district 16 years ago,” Denham told McClatchy. “My wife and I live here, we shop here, we’re involved in the community here.”
Further south, Republicans have attacked Democrat T.J. Cox for “district shopping,” after he jumped from the 10th District race to the 21st District, outside of Fresno. Cox’s community development fund does work in the district but he lives a few miles away, in Fresno.
The issue has perhaps loomed largest in the 4th District, where Morse regularly talks up the fact that McClintock has never lived in the district while touting her own local connections. When McClintock first took office, in 2009 during the recession, he said he hoped to move to the district but was upside down on his Elk Grove home, which he had bought in 2004 for $750,000.
“I’ve actually hiked our entire district on the Pacific Crest Trail, about 500 miles, which McClintock cannot claim,” Morse told supporters at a house party in Shingle Springs in July. “I don’t think he’s even hiked into the district,” she added, to laughter.
But while Morse has referred to the 4th District as her “home district,” the former State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budget analyst actually grew up in Carmichael, just over the district line in Sacramento County. She moved to the 4th District town of Pollock Pines, where she now rents a home, in 2017.
And that has McClintock’s campaign calling foul. “McClintock as always been very open and honest about where he lives,” said Chris Baker, a campaign consultant for the incumbent. Morse, on the other hand, “has effectively perpetuated this idea that she has some sort of real connection to the district when the reality is she showed up in 2017.”
Morse supporters, however, argue she still has an advantage over McClintock on the issue. They point out that Morse’s family has owned a tract of forest land in the Placer County foothills for five generations.
And they have circulated evidence on social media that McClintock hasn’t, in fact, always been forthcoming about his residency: in the House of Representatives’ Official List of Members, McClintock lists his residence as Roseville. Baker said that was the result of a miscommunication with the House Clerk’s office when McClintock first came to Congress a decade ago.
Morse campaign aides acknowledge that voters in the Republican-leaning district may not be disturbed about McClintock’s residency, on its own, but they believe it helps underscore their broader critique: that he’s out of step with the district. November will offer yet another test of whether that kind of pitch resonates with local voters.
Kate Irby contributed to this story.