Former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) has packed his truck and moved full-time to his former vacation home in Rye, New Hampshire. He is running for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in November. With Brown the putative favorite for the nomination, the general election will likely be a donnybrook. This race will likely be a marquee matchup and could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
The term "carpetbagger" will be a watchword leveled against Scott Brown. The term originally referred to a Northern resident who moved to the South following the Civil War. Many of these Northerners carried "carpet bags." The term has since entered the political lexicon referring to individuals who move from one state to another state to run for political office.
On paper, New Hampshire appears to be the opportune state for a candidate from another state to run for office. About 60 percent of Granite State residents were born out of state. Interestingly, the state's Governor, Maggie Hassan, is also a Massachusetts transplant. Even Shaheen is a transplant to New Hampshire, having grown up in Missouri. However, both Hassan and Shaheen established their professional lives and political careers in New Hampshire.
The state most associated with the term carpetbagger is New York. Two national figures, Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, moved to the state for the sole purpose of pursuing political office.
It was not until August of 1964 that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy officially threw his hat into the ring to run in the Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate. On Election Day, he was still a registered voter in Massachusetts and thus could not vote for himself. Nevertheless, this did not stop Kennedy from handily defeating the homegrown candidate, U.S. Representative Samuel S. Stratton (D-NY) in the Democratic Primary. Stratton later observed: "When Bobby Kennedy decided he was a New Yorker, that was the end of my campaign." In the General Election, Kennedy defeated U.S. Senator Kenneth Keating (R-NY) in part by challenging his self-depiction as a "liberal Republican." The Kennedy campaign distributed literature called "The myth of Keating's liberalism." Like Shaheen, Keating was a freshman Senator seeking a second term. Keating chided the state Democratic Party for not nominating a New Yorker. Making light of Kennedy's Massachusetts roots, Keating began a press conference by announcing:
Well, ladies and gentlemen, we all know what we're here for. And I want to announce at the outset that I will not be a candidate for the United States Senates from Massachusetts.
Ultimately, Kennedy won the race on the coattails of the popular Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who outran Kennedy in New York. Johnson carried every county in the state and garnered a whopping 68.5 percent of the vote. Kennedy won the Senate seat with just 53.5 percent of the vote.
In 1998, the popularity of First Lady Hillary Clinton in New York evinced itself as she campaigned for the state's U.S. Senate nominee, Chuck Schumer. The High Command of the Democratic Party urged her to run for the State's open Senate seat in 2000. They wanted someone with political star-power to challenge likely Republican nominee Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani made light of Hillary moving into the state to run for the Senate. In fact, he traveled to Arkansas, where Hillary had previously lived, to raise money. Speaking at a fundraiser for his campaign in Arkansas, Giuliani joked: "I've never lived here, I've never worked here, I've never gone to school here, it's the first time I've been here. I guess it would be cool to run for the Senate." Ultimately, Giuliani did not run due to his messy divorce and diagnosis of prostate cancer. U.S. Representative Rick Lazio (R-NY) supplanted him. Lazio however could not make the carpetbagger label stick to Clinton. Clinton went on to win the election, pocketing 55.27 percent of the vote.
In 2002, Massachusetts Democrats legally challenged the residency of Republican Gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney. The Commonwealth's Constitution requires candidates for Governor to have lived in the state for seven consecutive years before running for office. Democrats claimed Romney was a resident of Utah where he was CEO of the Salt Lake City Olympics. Romney claimed he was a part-time resident of Massachusetts, had maintained his property there and is thus eligible to run for Governor. The State Ballot Law Commission agreed that Romney was eligible to run for Governor. Democrats never gained much traction with the strategy of claiming Romney was a carpetbagger.
Many politicians have dealt with the carpetbagger label early in their careers, including future presidents. In 1946, John F. Kennedy first ran for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in a Congressional District he had not lived in since his youth. His opponents derided him as a son of privilege from outside the district. The East Boston Leader poked fun at Kennedy's entry into the race, exclaiming: "Congress Seat for sale - No experience necessary - Applicant must live in New York or Florida - Only millionaires need apply." Despite this attack, Kennedy used his sterling military credentials, Irish Catholic ethnicity, and prolific retail politicking skills to win the seat. In fact, Kennedy's campaign paid an unemployed plumber named Joseph Russo to run in the Democratic Primary, siphoning voters away from one of his opponents, a Boston City Councilor who was also named Joseph Russo, thus splitting the Joseph Russo vote.
The best answer to the charge of carpetbagging came in 1982 by John McCain, who had lived in Arizona for less than a year before he ran for an open U.S. House seat. He put the carpetbagging issue to bed after a voter called him a carpetbagger. McCain averred:
Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.
McCain won the race.
One of the few times the carpetbagger label actually stuck to a candidate was in 1978 when George W. Bush pursued a U.S. House seat in West Texas. Bush had spent much of his time out of state, being educated in New England at Philips Andover Academy, Yale University, and The Harvard Business School. Bush's Democratic opponent, Kent Hance, taunted Bush as: "Not a real Texan," and asserted "Yale and Harvard don't prepare you as well for running for the 19th Congressional District as Texas Tech does [Hance's alma mater]." Hance won that race.
The most successful carpetbagger was James Shields. Shields is the only U.S. Senator to serve three separate states. At the time, the State Legislatures selected U.S. Senators, not the citizens of the respective states. Shields was selected by the Illinois Legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1848. After the Illinois State Legislature did not reappoint him in 1854, Shields moved to Minnesota, and in 1858 was selected by that Legislature as one of that state's first Senators. Later in life, when Shields was domiciled in Missouri, that State's legislature selected him to fill the remainder of the term of the late Lewis Boggs.
The charge of carpetbagging is nothing new in American politics. However, with few exceptions, like in the case of George W. Bush, it is rarely a winning strategy for the opposing candidate. Most of the time when candidates from out of state lose an election, it is not because of where they reside, but because they are out of the state's political mainstream.
For Scott Brown, his major hurdle may be defining a rationale for his candidacy. It is difficult for a candidate who moves to a state to run for office to construct a compelling master narrative as to why he is motivated by more than mere electoral opportunism. However, Brown will likely benefit from the crosspollination between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In fact, about 13 percent of New Hampshire residents cross the border every day to work in Massachusetts. Accordingly, Brown can legitimately claim that he has a vested interest in New Hampshire because he is a long-time property tax payer. Although history suggests that moving into a state to run for office may be an electoral hindrance that a candidate must deal with, it is an encumbrance that can be dealt with and overcome.
History has shown that playing the carpetbagger card is usually an ineffectual strategy. Voters seem to care more about the stature and political positions of the candidates than the length of their residency in the state.