The geriatric Senate confronts a youth movement
Jon Ossoff broke the Senate’s generational barrier for millennials. His fellow 30-somethings want to make sure he isn’t alone for long.
Ossoff was 33 when, in January, he became the first senator of his generation and the youngest elected Democrat since Joe Biden in the 1970s. Now, at least a dozen candidates born after 1980 are either running for Senate or seriously considering launching campaigns for next year, a major surge in ambitious younger politicians.
They vary from political newcomers to statewide officials and members of Congress, and the list includes both Republicans and Democrats, in races from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to Ohio and Alabama.
The elections are a year and a half away, and barriers remain for the younger crop of candidates: Most face competitive primaries against either more established candidates or fellow up-and-comers, and some would face uphill general election battles if they win nominations. Several may opt against running.
But at a time when the Senate is better known for lawmakers who stick around well past retirement age, 2022 could emerge as the year when the chamber starts to get a whole lot younger.
“My message to young folks considering whether to run for local or state or federal office is: If you’ve got the fire in your belly, gear up and run because we urgently need more young voices in Congress and in positions across the country,” Ossoff said in an interview.
It’s no guarantee Ossoff’s win will open the floodgates for millennials actually joining the Senate, but they’re running in greater numbers. Last Thursday, Democrat Charles Booker, 36, launched a second run in Kentucky. A few hours later, Republican J.D. Vance, 36, launched his bid joining the crowded GOP primary in Ohio.
In Wisconsin, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, 39, and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, 33, are both running, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, 34, is seriously considering a bid. Outagamie County executive Tom Nelson, 45 — who ran his first campaign in his 20s — is the oldest candidate in the race so far.
In Pennsylvania, a top offensive target for Democrats, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, 30, is already in the race, and Rep. Conor Lamb, 37, is expected to launch a campaign for the seat. But they’ll be in a competitive primary against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Val Arkoosh, the Montgomery County commissioner recently endorsed by EMILY’s List.
Kenyatta, in an interview with POLITICO, argued that it’s past time for younger people to join the chamber, ticking off lifetime judicial appointments, military combat and the climate crisis as priorities for his generation.
“And yet, over and over and over again, we are locked out of the body that makes critical, critical decisions,” Kenyatta said.
Wisconsin is another battleground race where Democrats’ hopes of expanding their bare Senate majority could be on the shoulders of a young candidate, whether or not 66-year-old GOP Sen. Ron Johnson chooses to runs for a third term. Lasry, who is making his first run for office, said the party needs to appeal to young voters, who typically turn out in lower percentages during midterm elections.
“Young people are one of the bases of the Democratic Party,” he said. “And I think where there’s the most opportunity to make sure that we’re able to win these elections.”
Godlewski, in a statement, echoed other candidates in calling issues like climate change, health care and economic security “generational crises” and referenced her own experience as a young mom in highlighting her perspective.
“I know my generation needs to step up to bring a new perspective to Washington and deliver the changes we urgently need,” she said.
Nelson, the elder of the field who was the youngest member of the state legislature when first elected in 2004, said his legislative and executive experience “really sets me apart.”
Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, 32, was one of the youngest women in the House when she was elected before losing her seat last year. She is readying a bid for Senate in Iowa but has not publicly declared her intention to run. If she does join the race, it could provide a stark generational contrast with GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is 87, if Grassley decides to seek an eighth term.
Lamb is expected to run in Pennsylvania, while Barnes recently hired a veteran political operative as he contemplates running in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Quinton Lucas, the 36-year-old mayor of Kansas City, is contemplating an uphill bid for Senate in the reliably red state of Missouri. Democrats lost back-to-back races there in 2016 and 2018, but Lucas said the party needs candidates who can provide a spark on the ground.
“Democrats have not been bad at raising money in these races,” he said. “We’ve seen U.S. Senate races, certainly in the last cycle, where there was lots of money raised — but where, at times, we probably needed more excitement, more engagement, more energy.”
Other Democrats are already in the race, including former state Sen. Scott Sifton and Lucas Kunce, a 38-year-old Marine veteran who has run splashy digital ads already and announced raising $630,000 last quarter for his bid.
These candidates still face barriers, especially in crowded races where their resumes will be tested against established politicians. But in an environment where online fundraising and organizing has become an increasingly critical part of major campaigns, party strategists say younger candidates can find innovative ways to break through, including more authentic campaigning on social media platforms that doesn’t seem out of place with those using them daily.
Martha McKenna, a veteran Democratic operative, pointed not just to Ossoff, but to the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, now the transportation secretary, as evidence that voters are willing to accept well-credentialed younger candidates.
“I think the barrier may have existed 20 years ago but seems to be lowering every cycle, so that we’re getting a diversity of ages in our candidates in the same way that elected office is getting more racial and gender diversity,” McKenna said.
Most of the younger candidates, at least so far, are Democrats. But several Republicans are running, too, and the Republican Party has elected more young senators recently — including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who was 37 when elected to his first term, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who was 38.
Katie Boyd Britt, 39, the former chief of staff to retiring Sen. Richard Shelby, is running to replace him in Alabama. Britt faces a challenging primary: Former President Donald Trump already endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks, and former ambassador Lynda Blanchard is also self-funding a campaign in the race. But if Britt were to be elected, she would be nearly four decades younger than the old boss she would replace.
Britt, in an interview, said it’s not just age but the experiences of her generation appeals to voters.
“As a working mom of two, I think I obviously probably have unique experience, life experience and also know how to get things done,” she said.
Jeff Jackson, a Democratic state senator in North Carolina, is in a three-way primary with Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and former state Sen. Erica Smith, in a state Democrats hope will be competitive. Jackson, 38, is part-way through a 100-day town hall tour of the state and said his age has come up on the trail.
“Lots of folks who come to the town hall are Boomers themselves,” he said, adding that it was from these voters, not younger voters, that he saw enthusiasm for a new generation of candidate.
“Not saying [young voters] don’t care about it, but that’s not where the emphasis on this comes from,” he said. “It’s overwhelmingly from our older generation. They want to see younger leadership.”