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Voters generally reward age and experience, at least when it comes to incumbents.
But there’s an old herd of active politicians taking things to a new level. Today, it seems, you’re nobody in Washington unless you’re 80.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been the top House Democrat for nearly 20 years, is 81. Her deputy, Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is 82. The No. 3 Democrat, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, is 81.
President Joe Biden, who turns 80 next November, is comparatively junior – though once the youngest member of the US Senate, he was the oldest person to take office as President.
The current leader of the Senate, Democrat Chuck Schumer, is 70, but his opposite number, Mitch McConnell, is 79.
Republicans are using the ageism playbook against Biden, trying to paint him as doddering even though he’s only a smidge older than former President Donald Trump.
Looking forward to being in office at 95. All those Democrats are younger than Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, who is projecting a youthful 88.
He jogs in a new video announcing he’ll run for an eighth 6-year Senate term and posted to his Twitter feed at 4 a.m. CT.
In office well before other senators were born, Grassley is a fixture of the Senate and there’s no reason to think Iowans won’t send him back even though most can’t recall a time before he was in office. He was elected to his second Senate term in 1986, the year before the youngest current senator, Democrat Jon Ossoff of Georgia, was born.
The all-time list. Grassley is the 10th longest-serving senator ever. Another term would put him in the top five, all but one of whom died in office. Grassley would be 95 in 2029 when the term ends.
Grassley’s neither the oldest senator (that’s California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, reelected in 2018), nor the current longest-serving (that’s Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in office since 1975, before four current senators were born).
Leahy, also projecting vigor, will apparently go snowshoeing this year as he decides whether he’ll run for another term. If he serves another six years, it would make him the longest-serving senator ever.
The US is older too. Senators in general, like the US population in general, are older and working longer. All of the top five longest-serving senators were in office after the year 2000. All of the five longest-serving senators but Leahy died in office.
Pelosi shut down attempts by younger Democrats to get their shot at the top job by promising, sort of, to step down by 2022. But the promise left her plenty of wiggle room.
The conventional DC wisdom, which is often flawed, is that she’ll step down in 2022, but hasn’t yet fully committed to it because it would cede her leverage over Democrats in the chamber.
Ready to go. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, 87, is part of the old guard and has seen his state of Alabama veer from Democratic to Republican (Shelby switched parties along with it), but he is walking away from his seat after six terms – 36 years in the Senate and an additional six in Congress. He had angered many Republicans in the state, however, when he refused to back the controversial and toxic Trump-backed candidate Roy Moore in a 2017 special election.
None of the states with the most aged senators – California, Iowa, Vermont and Alabama – is listed as competitive by Inside Elections, which offers nonpartisan election ratings. It’s easier to got election after election if you win by large margins.
“There is a tremendous incumbency,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of Inside Elections when I asked him about the Grassley news. “If the incumbent decides to run again, then then it is very difficult for anyone of any age to knock them off.”
Serving for a long time in very safe seats. When Feinstein ran for reelection in 2018, her fiercest competition came from fellow Democrats trying to nudge her out of the way. That state’s open primary system allowed another Democrat, Kevin de León, to face her on Election Day. She beat him by about 900,000 votes.
There are currently six senators over the age of 80 and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hits that mark in February. He’s No. 19 and rising on the longest-serving list and this year will shoot past Biden, who served as a senator from Delaware for 36 years. Both Grassley and Feinstein will hit 90 in 2023, when they’re likely to still be in office.
Grassley has been in some kind of public office since 1959. That’s two years before Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey was born.
Some youngsters are not sticking around. There are those senators that live for the Senate life, but there are also a growing number that get out after a few terms. Toomey, the youngster at 59, has maintained he could have won again in the extremely competitive state of Pennsylvania, but wants to spend time with his family after 18 years on Capitol Hill. So he’s retiring after his term ends.
He believes he could win, but Pennsylvania is still number one on CNN’s periodic list of Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022. Read that list here.
So is Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican, who will finish out just his second term in the competitive state, but who doesn’t like the life like Grassley. It’s too frustrating to watch not much get done, he said in announcing his decision to no not run.
Too partisan to get much done. “I don’t think any Senate office has been more successful in getting things done, but honestly, it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy, and that has contributed to my decision,” Portman said.
While Portman pretty much always votes with Republicans, he was often viewed as a moderate in the chamber. And there are fewer of those around.
“We live in an increasingly polarized country where members of both parties are being pushed further to the right and further to the left, and that means too few people who are actively looking to find common ground. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but a problem that has gotten worse over the past few decades,” he said, adding, “This is a tough time to be in public service.”
Another youngster headed for the exit is North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who along with Toomey was among the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6th insurrection against the counting of Electoral College votes.
There are fewer senators who represent states that voted for the opposite party. CNN senior political analyst Ronald Brownstein has written about this. Toomey is one. He’s retiring. Another up for reelection this year is Sen. Ron Johnson, who hasn’t made a decision, but unlike Burr and Toomey, has backed Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election.
Every seat counts in a 50-50 Senate. In the states Inside Elections lists as battlegrounds – there are four held by Republicans and four held by Democrats, which means neither party, regardless of who controls the chamber, is likely to emerge from the 2022 elections with a strong and governing majority of 60 votes. To say it isn’t likely is an understated way of saying it ain’t happening.
One key race to watch will be in Arizona, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly will run for a full term in the state where allies of Trump have tried to question the results. That effort suffered a serious setback this week when a draft of the partisan review confirmed Biden won the key Maricopa County. Undeterred, Trump is now prompting Texas to review its results even though he won that state.
In the House, Pelosi’s retirement decision could be made for her by voters throughout the country. Republicans only need a few pickups to take control of the chamber and unseat Pelosi as Speaker.
“History is on their side,” Gonzales said of House Republicans. “The President’s party has lost an average of 30 House seats in Midterm elections going back a hundred years. Republicans need a net gain of five.”