There are some common political criticisms that get tossed around anytime a congressional incumbent has been in office for many years. His or her detractors will say the incumbent has become a “Washington insider” who’s “lost touch” with regular folks back home.
Sometimes the attacks have merit; sometimes they’re just lazy cliches. But as a rule, when incumbents no longer live in the state they represent, they open the door to awkward questions about whether their constituents are actually their neighbors. Today, for example, Jonathan Martin reports on Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who represents the state of Kansas.
It is hard to find anyone who has seen Senator Pat Roberts here [in Dodge City, Kansas] at the redbrick house on a golf course that his voter registration lists as his home. Across town at the Inn Pancake House on Wyatt Earp Boulevard, breakfast regulars say the Republican senator is a virtual stranger.“He calls it home,” said Jerald Miller, a retiree. “But I’ve been here since ‘77, and I’ve only seen him twice.”The 77-year-old senator went to Congress in 1981 and became a fixture: a member of the elite Alfalfa Club and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which made him a regular on the Sunday talk shows. His wife became a real estate broker in Alexandria, Va., the suburb where the couple live, boasting of her “extensive knowledge” of the area.
The Kansas senator used to live in Kansas. He also had a rental property he’d leased to tenants. But Roberts gave all that up when he effectively moved inside the Beltway.
After 35 years in Congress, the Republican now uses the home of a campaign contributor as his main address. [Update: the senator responds below.]
It’s hard to say what kind of effect this might have on Roberts’ re-election campaign – he faces an underfunded and largely unknown primary opponent, and no Democratic challenger – but other candidates have struggled after similar revelations.
In 2006, for example, Rick Santorum and his family had effectively moved full time to Virginia, a fact that may have contributed to his landslide defeat in Pennsylvania. More recently, in 2012, Richard Lugar lost a GOP primary in Indiana to a challenger who took advantage of the fact that the senator no longer owned a home in the state.
Long-time campaign observers may recall that by the mid-’90s, Kansas’ Bob Dole didn’t own a home in his “home state,” either, and locals didn’t seem to mind too much that the long-time lawmaker had become a fixture of Washington, D.C. But Kansas Republicans also used to have a great tradition of moderation, which has gradually been crushed by the far-right.
Update: I heard from Sen. Roberts’ communications director, Sarah Little, who referred me to this press release published this afternoon. It argues that the senator owns a home in Kansas; the New York Times reporter has “an agenda”; and the article from Martin is ”so slanted and so far from the truth that Kansans will not take it seriously.”