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An aging Senate isn’t good for democracy

Early Returns
Bloomberg

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With two runoff elections in Georgia remaining and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris's replacement not yet selected, it's still too early to know the average age of incoming senators for the 117th Congress. But we can already conclude one thing: The trend toward older new senators is continuing, and probably getting worse.

There were seven new senators elected in November. New Mexico's Ben Ray Lujan is 48 (all ages as of Jan. 3, when the new Congress begins). Arizona's Mark Kelly is 56. The rest? All in their 60s. If the incumbent Republicans hold both Georgia seats, the average age of the new senators will be 60.7.

It's simply not healthy for the Senate, and for the republic as a whole. I have no problem with the occasional Elizabeth Warren, who began her Senate tenure at 63 and has certainly shown plenty of vigor, or Mitt Romney, who entered the Senate at 71 and has been an important check on his own party's lawless president. But on the whole, I'd bet against Wyoming's Cynthia Lummis (66), Alabama's Tommy Tuberville (66) or Colorado's John Hickenlooper (68) having impressive Senate careers.

Beyond that, the Senate as a whole is increasingly unrepresentative of its constituents. It used to be the case that plenty of senators were in their 30s and 40s. That's now become relatively rare. It's impossible to draw direct lines between poor descriptive representation and a lack of belief in democratic institutions. But it's surely not a good thing. (Of course, it doesn't help that the outgoing president is 74, and the president-elect is 78.)

The fault for all of this rests squarely with the political parties. General-election voters can only select among the candidates the parties nominate, and even primary voters tend to follow the lead of more involved party actors. It's those party actors who have increasingly turned to older, and perhaps better known, candidates at the expense of younger ones who might seem riskier but have more long-term potential. That's happening even as voters become more partisan, making individual candidates less important in general elections. It's hard to believe that a lesser-known Democrat would've lost in Colorado, where Hickenlooper won by 9 percentage points — let alone a lesser-known Republican in Alabama, where Tuberville won by 20.

To the extent there's any good news here, the two Senate challengers in Georgia are on the younger side, and at least one of the apparent frontrunners in California, Alex Padilla, is 47. Of course, no partisan Republican in Georgia is going to vote for Democrat Jon Ossoff (33!) even if they care about the aging of the Senate. Which is why the nomination stage will make all the difference in reversing this trend.

The 2022 election cycle begins soon. Already, party actors in the states and in Washington are thinking about which potential Senate candidates to recruit — and which to discourage. There are plenty of important considerations, but they should ask themselves if this trend is producing the best senators their parties can get.

1. Costas Panagopoulos and Kyle Endres on the polls in 2020.

2. Seth Masket on how the Electoral College is holding up.

3. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Romesh Ratnesar talks with Martha Joynt Kumar about the transition process.

4. Also at Bloomberg Opinion: Andrea Gabor on civics education.

5. And Rich Yeselson on unions and the Democratic Party.

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