By Lisa Lerer
Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- When is a house not a home?
That’s the question facing Mary Landrieu this morning, after the Washington Post reported that the Louisiana senator doesn’t own a house in the state.
The address she listed on papers qualifying her for the ballot last week was the New Orleans raised-basement home of her parents. Landrieu, who’s fighting for her fourth term, owns a $2.5 million house in Washington a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
In politics, as in real estate, it’s location, location, location. Questioning a candidate’s residency is a classic -- and common -- political strategy, a shorthand way for campaigns to make the case that an opponent has forgotten hometown interests.
Democrats responded by pointing out that at least one Republican Senate candidate -- Tom Cotton in Arkansas -- has also faced residency questions. Cotton has spent most of his time since high school outside the state and doesn’t own property there.
Republican Senator Pat Roberts, of Kansas, is currently fending off his own residency questions, after acknowledging that he pays a supporter $300 a month to let him stay overnight in his home state.
Asked about the issue in an interview with local talk radio station KCMO last month, Roberts replied that he’s owned or rented a house in Dodge City, Kansas, for decades.
“Every time I get an opponent — I mean, every time I get a chance, I’m home,” he added.
Two years ago, real estate was potent enough to oust Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who’d won re-election with more than 65% of the vote since 1982.
In his case, a report that he stayed in a hotel whenever he came to Indiana snowballed after Democratic groups started digging into his records. Lugar was briefly ruled ineligible to vote by his local election board and a Senate investigation found that he improperly used over $14,000 in taxpayer dollars for hotel stays in Indianapolis.
“We had a home that we had built in Indianapolis with room for our four boys and our family. It was too expensive, at least for us at that time in our lives, to maintain two houses,” Lugar told reporters in February 2012. “So we sold the house the following year after we had been elected.”
He lost in the Republican primary to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. The residency issue was particularly potent, say Democrats, because it played into an existing storyline: The 79-year-old, six-term Senator had been in Washington too long.
“One charge and the inability to effectively counter it resulted in a narrative that persuaded Indiana voters that Dick Lugar was no longer the right person to serve the state of Indiana,” wrote Rodell Mollineau, then president of American Bridge 21st Century, the Democratic super-PAC that pushed the attacks, in an article for Campaigns & Elections.
Republicans are hoping to pursue a similar strategy with Landrieu in the November election.
“Senator Landrieu belongs in Washington, D.C. She just chooses Louisiana to get re-elected,” tweeted her leading opponent, Republican Representative Bill Cassidy.
Tea-party candidate Rob Maness, has asked the Louisiana Secretary of State to investigate her residency status.
“The voters of Louisiana deserve better than to be deceived into believing they are considering a candidate who claims to live in Louisiana, but in every relevant and practical way does not,” he said in a statement.
Landrieu aides pushed back, saying that both the senator and her husband file Louisiana taxes and vote in the state. Republicans tried the same attack in 2008, pointing to photos circulated eight years ago by an opponent’s campaign showing Landrieu shopping for groceries in a Washington supermarket.
“I have lived at my home on Prieur Street most of my life and I live there now, when not fulfilling my duties in Washington or serving constituents across the state,” said Landrieu, in a statement.
Landrieu is from a Louisiana political dynasty with both a brother and father who served as mayor of New Orleans, and Democrats argue that leaves little question about her roots in the state.
The attacks don’t always stick. Last year, Republicans tried to cast Senator Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, as a long-time Washingtonian who rarely headed back to the childhood home outside of Boston that he listed as his voting address. Massachusetts Democrats tried a similar attack against Mitt Romney in 2002, claiming he was a resident of Utah, where he was chief executive of the Salt Lake City Olympics.
And Hillary Clinton was labeled a “carpetbagger” when she first ran in 2000 for a Senate seat from New York, a state the then first lady had never lived in. A Ford cargo van solved the problem, with Clinton famously logging hundreds of hours crossing upstate New York.