In Senate Takeover, Leaders Would Skew Younger

Under Democrats, 13 gavels to younger members, 6 to women

If Democrats take over the Senate in November, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, 56, would be in line to succeed the current chairman, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, 75. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
If Democrats take over the Senate in November, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, 56, would be in line to succeed the current chairman, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, 75. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 19, 2016 at 5:00am

For New Hampshire and Nevada, plus as many as 10 states in between , this election is about control of the Senate as much as it is about the presidency.  

And it’s not just the partisan kind of control that’s in question. Whether the Democrats take the keys from the GOP remains the all-important bottom line. But there are several important secondary plot lines, and one of them is this:  

Voters in a relatively small cluster of purplish swing states have the power to decide if Baby Boomers and women gain a serious foothold in deciding the national legislative dynamic for the next two years.  

Today’s Republican-run Senate is undeniably in the thrall of “the old white guys.” The chairmanships in eight of the 20 committees are held by men born before World War II, and three other chairmen were born during that war. Only two gavels are wielded by women. And the most powerful job belongs to another member of the Silent Generation , 74-year-old Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.  

The demographics of power would be changed, although not truly transformed, if the Democrats in November pick up the net of five seats necessary to assure they control the place starting in January.  

[Senate is Showing its Age Lately, Mostly to the Good]
The likeliest lineup of new chairmen would remain entirely white, but it would be newly dominated by 15 senators born after the war and before the death of President John F. Kennedy, the customary definition of the Baby Boom years. At least six committees would be run by women. And in Charles E. Schumer of New York, who’s a lock to replace the retiring 76-year-old Harry Reid of Nevada as the Democratic boss, the Senate would see its first floor leader who’s a child of the 1950s. (He turned 65 in November).  

Seniority remains the dominant ingredient required for acquiring formal senatorial authority over setting and executing a legislative agenda. So the roster of potential new leaders also reflects the long-term payoff for investments the Democratic campaign operation made a decade or more ago. Schumer and 14 of the 20 chairmen-in-waiting got to the Senate initially by taking seats away from the Republicans.

Partisan age gap


Altogether, the current average age of the probable Democratic chairmen and senior leadership team is a few weeks younger than 66, or three years below the average age of today’s GOP high command. That’s not anything like a generational shift; Lionel Richie, who’s 66, is from essentially the same time as 69-year-old Barry Gibb, after all.  

And to be sure, the partisan age gap is much less dramatic than in the House’s top ranks , where it’s the Republicans who are the younger bunch, by a lot, and are almost certainly going to stay that way for at least the next few years.  The combined average age of 46-year-old Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin’s leadership team and the committee chairmen is 57 – think Kevin Bacon or Jamie Lee Curtis. That’s a dozen years below the median for the ranking committee Democrats and the top leadership surrounding 76-year-old Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. (The average, 69, is the age of Sylvester Stallone and Peggy Lipton).  

[Like a Rolling Stone]
But the attitudinal transition that’s probably in store if the Senate turns Democratic looks much more obvious by looking at the eight top-tier policy-making committees now under the control of Republicans born before Pearl Harbor.  

Their likeliest Democratic replacements are, on average, 14 years younger. And only one of them has celebrated even a 70th birthday.  

Three of today’s Republican chairmen are 82: Iowa’s Charles E. Grassley at Judiciary, Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch at Finance and Alabama’s Richard C. Shelby at Banking. Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe, 81, heads Environment and Public Works. Kansan Pat Roberts, 80, chairs Agriculture. Arizona’s John McCain, 79, is in charge at Armed Services. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, 78, is chairman of Appropriations. And Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, 75, has the gavel at Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.  

Unless some senators fall in big-time upsets, or decide to make late-career switches in committee priorities, three Democrats would be able to reclaim gavels they held the last time their party was in control, just two years ago: 67-year-old Ron Wyden of Oregon at Finance, 66-year-old Debbie Stabenow of Michigan at Agriculture and 76-year-old Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont at Judiciary.  

The others in line to succeed much more elder GOP statesmen would be Delaware’s Thomas R. Carper, 69, at Environment; Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, 66, at Armed Services; Washington’s Patty Murray, 65, at Appropriations; Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, 63, at Banking; and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, 56, at HELP.

Just a number


In fairness, the old adage that “age is just a number” finds plenty of supporting evidence on the GOP side of the aisle. While McCain comes across as vigorous and sharp-edged as ever, for example, Cochran (who’s 15 months younger) often appears lost in situations requiring any sort of spontaneity. And a three-year battle with Parkinson’s has made walking and speaking palpably more difficult for Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, chairman of both the Veterans Affairs and Ethics panels, who turned 71 in December.  

Those three and 20 other senators are products of the Silent Generation, those too young to have fought in World War II but born before that war ended. Sixty senators were born in the Baby Boom and the youngest 17 belonging to Generation X, those born between 1964 and about 1981.  

Millennials, generally defined as people who spent elementary school through high school in the previous century, have now become the biggest living generation at about 80 million, or a quarter of the U.S. population – but they so far have no representation in the Senate.  

[Labor Unions Line Up Behind Murphy in Florida Senate Primary]
And the only way that will change in 2017 is with a victory by at least one of these Democrats hot prospects: 33-year-old Rep. Patrick Murphy, who’s got to win the primary before contesting Florida’s tossup open seat, and 35-year-old Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who’s mounting an increasingly serious challenge to GOP incumbent Roy Blunt.  

At the same time, there’s also a decent chance it’s those same Democrats who could produce the oldest person ever sworn-in for an initial elected term in the Senate: Former Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, who turns 75 in August, has made his campaign to unseat Republican Rob Portman one of the year’s fiercest challenges.  

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