Coming Soon: A Younger Senate

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JONATHAN COHN SEPTEMBER 17, 2010

Coming Soon: A Younger Senate

Of the last several decades, Congress -- all of Congress, although I'm just going to talk about the Senate in this post -- has become old. Really old. Sometimes scary-old, as in the final years of the late Robert Byrd or the late Strom Thurmand. More often, run-of-the-mill old, as with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (b. 1939) or Mitch McConnell (b. 1942). Certainly, record old. The (current) 111th Senate when it began hit a record average age of 63.1 years. The first to break 60 was the 109th Senate, and virtually all recent Congresses broke records for age.

However, we're in the midst of a major shake-up. I've been tracking this for a while now, and it's now certain: we're headed, for the first time in years, younger. Here's the rundown:

Seven Senators died or resigned during the 111th Congress: Byrd, Kennedy, Obama, Biden, Clinton, Salazar, and Martinez (counting Obama for Illinois, although he actually resigned in 2008; I don't know whether the CRS numbers above include him, Burris, or an open seat for Illinois -- nor do I know what they did with the other transition seats). Their average age, had they all made it to the opening of the 112th Senate in January 2011, would have been 67.

Then we have retirements. Eight more Senators -- Bayh, Bond, Brownback, Bunning, Dodd, Dorgan, Gregg, and Voinovich, are leaving at the end of this term. Average age? Just over 66 years old (again, all ages are as of January 2011). 
 

With today's apparent announcement that Lisa Murkowski will run as a write-in candidate, two Senators exit after primary losses. Specter is 80; Bennett is 77.

That's seventeen Senators who were elected or in office in November 2008 who won't be there in January 2011. Their average age is almost exactly 68.

Now, the replacements. I'll start with the sure things, which begin with Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, a relatively youthful 51. After that, I'll add candidates who Nate Silver rates as full locks: Gillibrand, Hoeven, Lee, and Moran. Including Brown, those five incoming-unless-lightning-strikes Senators will average about 48.5 years old. That, as it turns out, is a bit of a fluke. In the other twelve vacated seats, the current leaders per Silver (Manchin, Kirk, Coons, Buck, Rubio, Coats, Blunt, Paul, Blumenthal, Ayotte, Portman, and Toomey) aren't quite that young. Add up all seventeen likeliest new Senators, and they average a little below 52. 

So: in the seventeen vacated seats, if the current chalk wins, the average age will drop from 68 to 52. That really is a stunning development, and it will be enough to break the string of record old Senates. I mean, think about it: if all seventeen winners serve two full terms, they'll still be younger than the group they are replacing were back in January 2009.

What of the incumbents (that is, full-term incumbents) in trouble? I count eight seats in that category. One, in Arkansas, is a very likely turnover, with Lincoln (b. 1960) almost certainly about to be beat by Boozman (b. 1950). Two incumbent Republicans do have somewhat competitive races, but Burr (55) and Vitter (49) are expected at this point to defeat Marshall (65) and Melancon (63). The other five seats, in Nevada, California, Wisconsin, Washington, and Alaska, all appear potentially competitive, in one way or another. This is a bit trickier...the eight incumbents in these seats average 58 years old, while the favorites, including incumbents who are favorites, are 57 years old. By the way, I'm counting Joe Miller as the favorite in Alaska, pending any polling. So, in those eight seats, we actually don't get much change - if the favorites win the eight seats will be a bit younger than if just the incumbents win, but they'll actually be a bit older than these incumbents were in January 2009.

I'm not going to try to run an overall average, because there's still plenty of uncertainty about what will happen. Instead, what you want to know is where the most important general elections will be for those who care about how old the Senate is. I'm going to rank them by a combination of age gap and closeness, and here are your top five:

5. Nevada: Angle (b.1949) vs. Reid (b. 1939)

4. Florida: Rubio (b. 1971) vs. Christ (b. 1956) vs. Meek (b. 1966).

3. California: Fiorina (b. 1954) vs. Boxer (b. 1940).

2. New Hampshire: Ayotte (b. 1968) vs. Hodes (b. 1951).

1. Illinois: Giannoulias (b. 1976) vs. Kirk (b. 1959). Close race, big gap, actual young candidate...easy choice for the top spot.

By the way, if Congressional demographics interest you -- and if you're reading to the bottom here, well, that answers that question -- I recommend the highly-praised reporter and occasionally-praised brother David S. Bernstein's end-of-primary-season look at the Republican women of 2010, which turns out to be a much smaller group than you might think. Oh, and a data note: I estimated Ken Buck's age from his college graduation; he apparently keeps it close to the vest. At least, when I tweeted the question, it was retweeted by the folks at the Denver Post, so they don't seem to know, either. The other candidate without a web-accessible age is Alaska Democrat Scott McAdams; I have no idea at all how old he is, but I'm assuming he starts as the longshot, anyway. Gotta love those three-way races, though: bizarre things can happen.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, midterm elections, politics, senate

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