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Residency issue comes to the fore in key Senate races

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, speaks during a hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship at Senate Dirksen Building on June 17, 2010 in Washington, D.C.

Kris Connor, Getty Images

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu is one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this cycle, and her re-election race is one of the most watched. It is not only expected to be a long one, as a December runoff seems likely, it could also play an instrumental role in determining which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. So when a report last week revealed that the three-term senator claims her parents' home address in New Orleans as her voting residence, opponents jumped at the opportunity to make an issue of this revelation.

Landrieu is a scrappy politician and has a history of winning tough races. But this one may prove to be her most difficult campaign yet. With the stakes so high, there is little room for error, especially since she is polling at just over 40 percent. And so the residency controversy potentially looms large, especially since it has helped derail campaigns in the past -- Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar's 2012 re-election bid being the most recent example.

Admittedly, Landrieu is no Lugar: It's difficult to distance her from Louisiana, given her own history of public service there and that of her family. Nonetheless, residency has come to the fore as a campaign issue this cycle, cutting across party lines. Republicans and Democrats alike are facing the "Where do you really live?" question in races from Alaska to Kansas to New Hampshire.

The topic has become an increasingly sensitive and potentially damaging one in recent years, given the heightened public distaste for Washington. Living in or near the nation's capital can be a liability -- a symbol of the inside-Washington status greatly loathed in a political climate where the "outsider" label is considered a badge of honor. D.C. connections are spotlighted by opponents as evidence of being out of touch with the values and interests of constituents.

"Senator Landrieu belongs in Washington, D.C. She just chooses Louisiana to get re-elected," her Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, tweeted last week. (Cassidy owns a condo in Washington in addition to a home in Baton Rouge.) Her other GOP opponent (Louisiana has a "jungle primary," in which all candidates run together), Rob Maness, said he has asked the district attorney to investigate Landrieu's residency.

When the Washington Post reported that Landrieu is registered to vote under her parents' address, she explained that she had lived in that house for most of her life, and stays there when she is not performing Senate duties in Washington or traveling around her home state. The Post reported that Landrieu and her siblings, along with their mother, are part of a limited liability corporation that owns the home.Landrieu and her husband own a $2.5 million home four blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

Soon after the report, Republicans released a memo titled "Landrieu's Gone Washington." This comes as she is already under scrutiny for taking taxpayer-funded flights home for campaign purposes. (The senator has reimbursed her campaign for the flights.)

Landrieu has tried to characterize her tenure in the nation's capital an asset. She chairs the Senate Energy Committee, a panel with significant importance to her state, and has used that position to demonstrate her influence in ways that are beneficial to Louisiana. (Republicans, however, point to the failure of legislation to force the approval of the Keystone pipeline, among other measures, to undercut her assertions of clout.) She also points to the significant amount of federal aid directed to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in 2005.

Landrieu is also part of the state's political dynasty, which likely works to her advantage regardless of where her mail is delivered. Her father, Moon, was a longtime mayor of New Orleans. Her brother, Mitch, now holds that post and is often mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate down the road.

Democrats say the criticisms are all recycled news, and that past opponents have tried and failed to make an issue of the fact that Landrieu doesn't own a home of her own in Louisiana. They also point to Arkansas, where reports have shown that U.S. Senate candidate Tom Cotton, a Republican, does not own property in the state. (Cotton left Arkansas to attend college, serve combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later to work for a consulting company in the D.C. area. He returned to his home state in 2011 to run for Congress; his parents own the house featured in his campaign ads.)

Then there's Kansas, where Republican Sen. Pat Roberts listed a supporter's address on his voter registration, according to a New York Times report earlier this year. Roberts survived his primary, despite his opponent's efforts to capitalize on the issue. Nonetheless, Roberts is in a surprisingly close, three-way general election matchup.

Far to the north and west, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has begun to center his re-election race against Dan Sullivan on the "How Alaskan are you?" question. Sullivan is from Ohio and moved to the 49th state, where his wife is from, in 1997. He went to Washington in 2002 to serve in the Bush administration, and returned to Alaska in 2010. The Sullivan campaign says the candidate has owned a home and voted in the state, and has an Alaska driver's license. The incumbent, who is also viewed as vulnerable this year, has run several ads promoting his own Alaskan roots, including shots of his father (a former senator) as well as Begich riding a snow mobile.

Residency issues also surfaced in the contentious Mississippi GOP primary, as challenger Chris McDaniel questioned whether Sen. Thad Cochran really lived in the state. (Cochran rents an apartment in Washington, which he had listed as his home address, but he is registered to vote at the home he owns in Oxford.) Despite those efforts, Cochran narrowly defeated McDaniel in a runoff this summer.

And in New Hampshire, the residency issue could be a significant challenge for Republican Scott Brown's Senate bid. Brown represented Massachusetts in the upper chamber until his 2012 defeat. The following year, he moved his primary residence to his vacation home in neighboring New Hampshire, where he was born. Brown, who is expected to win his Sept. 9 primary, has been working to shed the carpetbagger label lobbed at him by opponents, along with questions about his political motivations.

One of the reasons the residency question has become more pronounced in campaigns this year is because it played a role in taking down the influential and well-respected Lugar two years ago. But the six-term lawmaker hadn't lived in Indiana for decades and stayed in hotels when he visited.

Proximity to the heart of Washington, both physically and in experience, used to be desirable for lawmakers, taken as a sign they were working hard and making the connections and relationships necessary to move legislation and bring home the bacon for constituents. But constituent service and fundraising demands led to changes in the congressional schedule. Now, senators are in session for just three days during the week to accommodate travel home on the weekends. (Ironically, a top criticism of Congress is that lawmakers aren't in town enough these days to get any real work done.)

But the old dynamic has morphed. It may be difficult to separate someone like Mary Landrieu from her home state. But in a race so closely contested, and at a time when control of the Senate is at stake, Republicans hope to do just that in building a case for her retirement.