In a Republican primary that has been dominated by sound bites, a complicated legal issue has found its way to the fore of the campaign: eminent domain.
The procedure allowing governments to seize land for public projects has been the focus of an ongoing dispute between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and front-runner Donald Trump. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also has weighed in on the issue, issuing yard signs boasting that he “stands against eminent domain abuse.”
The topic could resonate in the first voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa, where companies have run into stiff opposition after floating the idea of using eminent domain for pipelines or other projects. Eminent domain is a particularly hot issue for many conservative and libertarian-leaning voters, who want to limit the power of government to encroach on personal property.
“It’s not a major issue for most voters because it doesn’t come up and impact most voters,” said Andrew E. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “But when it does raise its head . . . it all of a sudden becomes a very important thing.”
Eminent domain is the process under which governments can take private property for public use. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that a local government can force the sale of property if it thinks the transaction would foster economic development and help the public.
In recent days, Cruz released an attack ad detailing how Trump and the local government tried to use eminent domain to force an Atlantic City widow out of the home she owned for decades so that he could use the land for a casino parking lot.
Eminent domain, Cruz’s ad states, is a “fancy term for politicians seizing private property to enroll the fat cats who bankroll them. Like Trump.” Then it cuts to a clip of Trump saying that eminent domain is “wonderful.”
Trump defended the practice Sunday, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that eminent domain is necessary to build infrastructure.
“If you didn’t have eminent domain, you wouldn’t have highways,” Trump said. “You wouldn’t have roads, you wouldn’t have schools, hospitals. I mean, I don’t love eminent domain, but you need eminent domain, or you don’t have a country.”
On Saturday, Trump also talked about how eminent domain was necessary in Pella, Iowa, where many landowners strongly oppose the prospect of the government taking land for a new regional airport.
Eminent domain is a contentious issue in other parts of Iowa as well. Last year, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) said he supported the use of eminent domain for some pipeline projects. One proposal would carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota, cutting across 18 Iowa counties. A $2 million transmission line to send wind energy from Iowa to Illinois also included the use of eminent domain; last year, the project was put on hold while the company behind it figures out how to move forward.
According to a 2014 Des Moines Register poll, 57 percent of Iowans favor the pipeline, but only 19 percent said eminent domain should be used to construct pipelines or power lines.
Paul has seized on the issue in Iowa, telling voters in Oskaloosa earlier this month that he opposes the practice.
“I will not let the government take any of your property through eminent domain and give it to somebody else,” Paul said.
On the side of Interstate 35, north of Des Moines, someone painted on a truck in red letters, “Stop eminent domain abuse.”
Cruz unveiled his first eminent domain attacks in Whitefield, N.H., a tiny town nestled in the White Mountains, an area of the state with a strong libertarian, anti-government streak.
New Hampshire has a long history of resisting eminent domain. In 2006, voters amended the state constitution to prohibit the state from taking land from one private owner and giving it to another. In the southern part of the state, homeowners are concerned that their land could be taken by energy giant Kinder Morgan, which has plans for a gas pipeline.
In 2012, former governor John Lynch (D) signed a law blocking utility companies from using eminent domain for certain projects, a law aimed at the contentious Northern Pass project, which seeks to string power lines from Quebec through New Hampshire, connecting a Canadian hydroelectric plant to New England’s power grid.
A 2012 poll from the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center — paid for by a rival of the Northern Pass project — showed that 74 percent of surveyed independent voters, New Hampshire’s largest bloc, opposed eminent domain, as did 67 percent of Republicans.
After the Supreme Court decision giving local governments more power to take private property by eminent domain, a group of people tried to seize the New Hampshire farmhouse of former justice David Souter, who was the swing vote in the case. The group wanted to turn his rural Weare, N.H., home into a hotel.
The issue looks like it will continue to simmer on the campaign trail. On Saturday, Trump said eminent domain is necessary for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ferry oil from Alberta to Nebraska — a project that Cruz supports.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a conservative columnist and senior editor at National Review, said eminent domain “has been an issue that got a lot of attention from conservatives and libertarians,” especially following the Supreme Court case.
“But it’s never been a top-tier issue,” Ponnuru added. “It’s not an issue one would normally place in the top ranks of things to determine a presidential vote.”