On Wednesday night, Illinois Republicans asked two-time presidential contender Alan Keyes to be their party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate. Keyes may be a Marylander who’s never lived in the Land of Lincoln, but as long as he’s an inhabitant of Illinois on Election Day, he’s eligible for the job. Pundits are already discussing the “carpetbagger issue,” as they did when Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate from New York in 2000. Besides Illinois and New York, which states allow this kind of carpetbagging?
All of them. The U.S. Constitution has only three requirements for senators: They must be at least 30, have at least nine years of U.S. citizenship under their belts, and be an inhabitant of the state they represent at the time of the election. (The standards are similar, though less stringent, for representatives, who must be inhabitants of their elector state, be at least 25, and have been U.S. citizens for at least seven years.) These rules are dictated by the Constitution (rather than left to the states’ discretion) because the document’s framers wanted what the Supreme Court has called “a uniform national legislature.”
Over the years, various states and even Congress itself have attempted to beef up the requirements for service. In January 1967, the House refused to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., D-N.Y., following his November 1966 re-election. The House maintained that various accusations against Powell, including the claim that he’d misused travel funds, made him ineligible for his seat. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. Chief Justice Warren held that “the qualifications for members of Congress had been fixed in the Constitution” and that the House could judge its members’ eligibility for office solely by “the qualifications expressly set forth in the Constitution.”
More recently, states have sought to add their own restrictions on who can represent them. During the term-limits movement of the 1990s, Arkansas attempted to restrict senators to two terms and representatives to three. After serving these terms, senators and representatives would not be allowed to appear on the state ballot. In 1995, the Supreme Court found Arkansas’ limits unconstitutional. Writing for the court, Justice Stevens argued that allowing “individual States to adopt their own qualifications for congressional service would be inconsistent with the Framers’ vision.” He asserted that if “the qualifications set forth in the text of the Constitution are to be changed, that text must be amended.”
So barring an amendment, carpetbagging remains a constitutionally protected right. Keyes shouldn’t worry about the charge, however. Even if he is elected after a hasty relocation, he won’t have a record anything like that of Sen. James Shields. Born in Ireland, Shields was a senator for Illinois from 1849 to 1855, for Minnesota from 1858 to 1859, and for Missouri during part of 1879. He was also briefly governor of Oregon when it was a territory.
Explainer thanks Professor Jack M. Balkin of Yale Law School as well as Brenda Erickson and Tim Story at the National Conference of State Legislatures.