Skip to content

Old Hands

Are Senior Senate Candidates Seen As Statesmen or Has-Beens?

In their ongoing search for top talent, Senate recruiters for Republicans and Democrats generally say the same thing: find the best candidate possible for that race in that particular state.

This cycle a few potential candidates, particularly on the Democratic side, have emerged that hold quite a bit of experience in politics. These are veteran lawmakers considering re-entering politics after a fair bit of time off — for better or worse.

In Georgia, Andrew Young, 71, is preparing to enter the race to succeed retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D). A former Atlanta mayor and ambassador to the United Nations in the Carter administration, Young’s last political campaign was a 1990 gubernatorial primary, which he lost badly to Miller.

In Colorado, former Sen. Gary Hart (D), 66, has been considering a challenge to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R), 24 years after he last ran statewide in the Centennial State and 16 years after his 1988 presidential campaign.

And in Kansas, searching for a challenger to Sen. Sam Brownback (R), Democrats once again looked hopefully to former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman (D), 58, though the former House Agriculture Committee chairman eventually turned down their entreaties.

The Democrats aren’t alone: Earlier this year, the GOP tried to lure former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) into the 2004 Senate race. Edgar, 57 and last on the statewide ballot in 1994, declined. And for almost every Senate race in New Jersey in the past 15 years, national Republicans have tried to rope in former Gov. Tom Kean (R), who left office in 1989, only to be repeatedly turned down by the senior statesman of Garden State politics.

Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) said there has been no concerted effort to search for veteran candidates, just raw political considerations at play.

“We’re looking for the best candidate available,” said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman.

Corzine said it’s not clear whether it’s better to have youthful, energetic but less- experienced campaigners, or if there’s an advantage to the statesman-as-candidate.

“I don’t think there’s a black-and-white answer to that question,” he said, pointing to his home state’s Senate race last year, when then-retired Frank Lautenberg (D) — 78 at the time — jumped into the race a year ago this week and won a return trip to the Senate.

“Frank Lautenberg proved you don’t have to be young” to win, Corzine said.

On the flip side, however, was the Minnesota Senate race, where another statesman, Walter Mondale, a former Senator, vice president and ambassador, took over after Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) died in a plane crash 10 days before Election Day. Mondale, 74 at the time, lost to now-Sen. Norm Coleman (R), 53, on Election Day 2002 in a very close race.

Some Republicans agree that there’s nothing wrong with pulling a respected wise man or woman out of retirement for a statewide race, but they say the key is how voters felt about that person when he or she left politics.

“A lot of it depends on the individuals and how they left the political arena,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who served two cycles as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.

For Democrats this cycle, McConnell said Young could be a viable candidate because he was still held in high regard after his stints as ambassador, Congressman and mayor. Young also happens to be the only “name” Democrat in Georgia willing to make the race, after a succession of younger statewide elected officials shied away from the contest.

But Hart, whose presidential hopes were dashed by accusations of extramarital affairs, is another issue, according to McConnell.

“That strikes me as sort of a desperation move, kind of a Hail Mary,” he said.

Last week, Hart told CNN that he would defer his still-theoretical campaign to Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the Boulder-area lawmaker who appears to be running stronger in polls against Campbell. But while acknowledging his desire to serve in the Senate some day, Udall has not shown much enthusiasm for this race, which could leave Democrats with an option of Hart or nothing.

Colorado state Sen. Dan Grossman (D) has also discussed the possibility of challenging Campbell, and he is widely admired by state Democrats. But at age 35, he is considered far more interested in a run for state attorney general in 2006 than in a very long-shot Senate contest.

Corzine has been talking up Hart’s post-Senate, post-presidential-candidate experience as a member of several bipartisan commissions warning about terrorism, an area of expertise that has only grown in importance during the past two years.

As Corzine put it earlier this month, “Gary Hart has a reason to be in the United States Senate.”

Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said that despite Hart’s eligibility for a Social Security check, he envisions the former Senator running an innovative campaign that would appeal to and rely heavily on young people. And, as national Democrats can’t help pointing out, Hart is still four years younger than Campbell.

But judging from some recent anecdotal evidence, Udall, 53, may be the better challenger to Campbell, 70.

McConnell lost a pair of races to Democrats in the 2000 campaign in which the challengers were clearly younger and more energetic than the incumbents. In Washington, now-Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), 42 on Election Day, edged out former Sen. Slade Gorton (R), who was 72 at the time. And in Delaware, now-Sen. Tom Carper (D) stomped the six-term GOP incumbent, then-Finance Chairman Bill Roth, 79 at the time, who experienced several dizzy or fainting spells on the campaign trail.

In the 1998 cycle, McConnell lost another incumbent, then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who was 70 at the time, to a Democratic challenger who epitomized youthful energy, John Edwards, who was then 45.

In addition to Coleman edging Mondale in 2002, a pair of other races showed that a more youthful challenger can be the right weapon against a troubled incumbent. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), 40, won by a safe margin over former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R), who was dogged by family troubles as he divorced his wife in the middle of his six-year term and married a younger woman.

Pryor is 14 years younger than Hutchinson.

In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent (R), 22 years the junior of the Democratic incumbent, former Sen. Jean Carnahan, won a narrow victory.

In New Hampshire, then-Rep. John Sununu (R), who was 38 on Election Day, plausibly presented himself as a fresh face compared to then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), 55 at the time and finishing up six years as governor.

Sununu won the general election 50 percent to 47 percent after first besting then-Sen. Bob Smith (R), age 61, in the GOP primary.

But youth and vigor aren’t always the best ingredients, particularly in open-seat races, as Lautenberg proved in his short campaign last year and as Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) demonstrated in holding on to two GOP seats.

Alexander, who is now 63, won handily against former Rep. Bob Clement (D-Tenn.) in his first statewide run since he won his second term as governor in 1982. And Dole, now 67, won her first elective office despite not having lived in North Carolina in several decades.

Alexander and Dole both command more respect in their caucus than some of the other freshmen, but McConnell said Republicans are particularly happy with the youthful corps of Senators who were swept in in 2002, something Democrats were equally happy about in 2000.

“Ideally, you don’t want a 71- or 72-year-old freshman,” he said.

The Democratic class of 2000 includes several Senators who could be around for decades to come: Cantwell, 44; Carper, 56; Corzine, 56; Sen. Mark Dayton (Minn.), 56; and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), 53.

On the Republican side in 2002, a handful of Senators have the potential to be around equally as long: Talent, 47; Sununu, 39; Coleman, 54; Lindsey Graham (S.C.), 48; and John Cornyn (Texas), 51.

“If they chose to,” McConnell said, “they could stay around here quite a while.”

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.