Friday, December 04, 2009

30-Somethings Aim for Aging Senate

By Nathan Gonzales

Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) was 4 years old when Rep. Mike Castle (R) was elected lieutenant governor of Delaware. But come 2011 the two men could serve together in the Senate.

Giannoulias, 33, is one of a handful of young candidates running to become a member of what is now the oldest — in terms of average age — Senate in history. Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), 37, and former Florida state Speaker Marco Rubio (R), 38, are among the other under-40 Senate candidates whose 2010 bids have gained some national attention.

But while next year’s midterm electorate is likely to be older than in a presidential year, there’s no indication that being a younger candidate will be an obstacle for any of the 30-something crowd running.

“No one has said, ‘You’re too young to be a Senator,’” Grayson told Roll Call.

Indeed, it will be difficult to take issue with the secretary of state’s youth and inexperience because he’s in the middle of his second term in statewide office and the other three main candidates in the race aren’t that much older than he is.

Giannoulias and Rubio aren’t political newcomers either. The Illinois Democrat was elected statewide in 2006 at the age of 30 while Rubio was first elected to the state House when he was 29 and was Speaker by age 35.

With their political backgrounds, Giannoulias, Rubio and Grayson are in good company. Nine current Senators were elected before the age of 40 and all of them had previous experience in elected office.

Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) all served in the House. Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) held statewide office, and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) served in the state Legislature.

Then-Chittenden County State’s Attorney Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was elected to the Senate in 1974, before Giannoulias was even born. Leahy was elected at 34, the youngest current Senator at swearing-in.

Until this year, that distinction was held by now-Vice President Joseph Biden, who was elected to the Senate from Delaware at age 29 and turned 30 before being sworn in in January 1973.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was elected to the chamber at age 30. In fact, the governor of the Bay State appointed a placeholder after Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was elected president because Ted Kennedy was then too young to serve.

According to the Senate Historical Office, the average age of Senators at the beginning of the 111th Congress was 62.7 years. The average age of Senators in the 1st Congress was 47 and stayed in the 40s for all but three of the first 30 Congresses. More recently, the average age of Senators has increased steadily every Congress over the past decade, and the last three Congresses have been the chamber’s oldest.

This cycle’s crop of young Senate candidates is balanced out by some political veterans such as former Association of Trial Lawyers of America President Roxanne Conlin (D), 65, who is running in Iowa, and Castle, 70, who is running in Delaware. He’ll likely face state Attorney General Beau Biden (D), 40, who is spending time with his family after coming home from active duty in Iraq before making an official decision.

For younger candidates, the greatest challenge may be balancing life on the campaign trail with their young families.

“With a wife and four children at home, running for Senate can be especially tough,” explained Rubio. “When it’s 11:30 at night and there are two hours left on the drive home, sometimes it’s difficult.”

He added: “But I remind myself that I’m running to be a voice for my children and their generation.”

Grayson echoed those sentiments.

“The challenging part is that I’m away from them a lot,” Grayson said about his two young children. “But they’re able to do more in this campaign because they’re older. It’s fun having them on the trail in the parades.”

Grayson believes his age is an asset because he’s more familiar with the technology of the day than the average Senate candidate and better able to communicate with college students and young professionals. “I have the ability to relate to them because not too long ago, that was me,” Grayson said.

Neither Rubio nor Giannoulias nor Grayson is guaranteed election next year. All of them face competitive primaries and general elections, but their age isn’t likely to be their downfall should they come up short.

If the most recent presidential contests are any indication, the American electorate isn’t turned off by youth. The younger candidate has won four out of the last five races, and the last three presidents have come into office at fairly young ages: Bill Clinton was 46, George W. Bush was 54, and Barack Obama was 47 when first elected.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on November 30, 2009 and on on November 28, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.