Skip to content

Dilemma for octogenarians in Congress: Retire or run again?

Some well-known names have not said if they will seek another term

House members who are over 80 and have not said if they are running again include Democratic Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California, center, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, right, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.
House members who are over 80 and have not said if they are running again include Democratic Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California, center, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, right, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, the oldest member of the House at 86, announced earlier this month that she wasn’t seeking reelection, but other octogenarians in Congress have yet to publicly disclose their plans.

Chief among them are three influential Democrats: Reps. Nancy Pelosi, 83, of California, Steny H. Hoyer, 84, of Maryland, and James E. Clyburn, 83, of South Carolina.

Pelosi, a former speaker who has represented San Francisco in the House for more than 36 years, is still a prodigious fundraiser: she brought in about $936,000 during the second quarter of 2023 and has about $3.6 million in the bank.

Should Pelosi forgo a run, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener is ready; he recently formed an exploratory committee. Other possible contenders for the safe Democratic seat including Jane Kim, executive director of the labor-backed Working Families Party, and Pelosi’s daughter, Christine Pelosi, a Democratic strategist. The primary for the seat will be held in March with the top two finishers, regardless of party, facing off in the fall.

Hoyer raised $291,000 in the second quarter and has $795,000 on hand. Clyburn, who is serving as a national co-chair of President Joe Biden’s reelection effort, raised about $310,000 and has more than $2 million on hand.

Money isn’t the best indicator of a long-time incumbent’s political plans, says CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales.

“Fundraising matters less for these long-standing incumbents,” he said. “They don’t need to raise as much money to get their message out. Some of them have been around for decades and they are well-known and they can ramp up pretty quickly compared to a first-time candidate or a member in their first term or two.”

Several of the chamber’s oldest members have already announced reelection bids. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is 85 and serves as Washington, D.C.’s non-voting delegate, told The Washington Post she has more she wants to get done. Two fellow Democrats are hoping to unseat her.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., also said he is seeking reelection. With Napolitano’s retirement, the 85-year-old would be the oldest House member if he wins. And 85-year-old Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., told the Lexington Herald-Leader’s political reporter that “unless something happens,” he plans to run for a 23rd term.

The Senate, where the average age is 64 — compared with 57 in the House — Sen. Bernie Sanders hasn’t announced whether he’s running again. The 81-year-old independent from Vermont raised $719,000 this quarter, not a huge haul for a Senate incumbent, but he has $9.7 million on hand.

Age has emerged as a key issue in the presidential race. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is 80 and former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, is 77.

In Congress, age-related questions can be politically delicate. But with both chambers narrowly divided, party leaders have had to confront sometimes awkward questions about an elderly member’s ability to do the job. The issue was brought into sharp focus with concerns about 90-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s mental acuity, and more recently, her physical health following a diagnosis of shingles.

In the months leading up to the California Democrat’s announcement in February that she would not seek reelection, some of her Senate colleagues complained anonymously to reporters about her ability to do her job, noting that the once nimble and savvy politician was having trouble remembering conversations and keeping up with Senate business.

In Feinstein’s case, weak fundraising numbers did foreshadow her retirement announcement. She had raised just $559 in the final quarter of 2022 and had $9,969 in her campaign account on Dec. 31. 

Gonzales says he expects more retirements, especially in the House, where just nine members have announced that they are leaving so far.

Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., is at 26 the lone Gen Z representative in Congress, but activists are hoping to change that.

“As a whole, Congress is far too old,” said Jack Lobel, a Columbia University student and press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow, a nonpartisan group dedicated to harnessing youth political power.

“Young people deserve a voice in government as much as any American,” Lobel said. “We are taxpayers, members of the military and students and the people inheriting this nation. We need representatives in government who understand what it’s like to grow up in Generation Z.”

But age isn’t the only measure that the group looks for when it assesses candidates. “The numbers that matter most are not age but rather the funding you’re delivering for climate action and for our schools,” Lobel said. “We care about a platform that uplifts Gen Z, not when you were born.”

Later this week, Voters of Tomorrow is hosting a summit that will bring young people from across the nation to Washington. Among the panelists: Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi.

Recent Stories

Strange things are afoot at the Capitol

Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024

Getting down on the Senate floor — Congressional Hits and Misses

US-China tech race will determine values that shape the future

What’s at stake in Texas runoff elections on Tuesday

Democrats decry ‘very, very harmful’ riders in Legislative Branch bill