The Gray Party

Democrats are lining up top recruits for the 2016 Senate race—and they're almost all approaching retirement age.

Jay LaPrete/AP

In a feature in this month's edition of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin notes that one of the favorite lines of attack for Hillary Clinton's critics is to harp—sometimes rather obliquely—on her age.

"Articles have proclaimed: 'Affluent Grandmother Is 2016 Frontrunner,' 'Memory Problems Could Doom Hillary’s White House Run,' and 'Grandmother Hillary Clinton, 67, is vying to become one of the oldest world leaders in history,'" Rosin writes. "When People magazine put her on its cover, The [Washington] Free Beacon’s editors gleefully dived into the debate about whether she was leaning on a walker in the photo. (Her hands were, in fact, on a patio chair.)"

Clinton isn't that old—she'll be 69 on Election Day 2016—but all this talk of age has some Democrats worried about the graying of the party's pool of candidates, and the shallow bench of youngsters behind them. Many in the party are worried about the age of party leaders in Congress. But one of the clearest demonstrations of the age gap is in races for the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hope to recover control in 2016.

On Wednesday, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland announced he will run for Senate against incumbent Republican Rob Portman. That's a blue-chip recruit for Democrats. Strickland is one of the few figures in the party who's actually won a statewide election in Ohio, and if he hadn't had the misfortune to be up for reelection in 2010, a big wave year for the GOP, he might still be in office. (Even so, he only lost by two points.) With proven electability, strong name recognition, and fundraising ability, he's widely believed to be the party's best chance to take out Portman, a respected senator with national Republican backing.

Strickland is also 73. That age pops out especially in comparison to the other Democrat who has already declared his candidacy—Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who's 30. Whether there will actually be a competitive primary is unclear. Strickland's backers say Sittenfeld is likely to bow out rather than challenge him. Sittenfeld is, for the time being, sticking around. He declared his candidacy in January and has already started raking in fundraising. Since he looks like the future of the Democratic Party in the state—a party that's had a very rough run—he can only benefit from hanging around a little longer and raising his profile. Meanwhile, another young Dem who's thought to have statewide aspirations, Representative Tim Ryan, already took a pass on the race.

Just a few states west in Wisconsin, everything's coming up déjà vu, too. Russ Feingold, a liberal stalwart who also lost during the 2010 wave, is apparently ready for a rematch with Republican Ron Johnson. "To most Democratic and Republican leaders in Wisconsin, it's no longer a question of if Russ Feingold runs for Senate—it's a question of when he'll formally enter the race," reports National Journal's Alex Roarty. At 61, Feingold isn't even eligible for a seniors discount at the cinema, but it's also hard to paint him as the future. He is also, like Strickland, considered Democrats' best chance at reclaiming the seat.

These are only the most obvious examples. In North Carolina, former Senator Kay Hagan (also 61)—who lost her bid for reelection to Thom Tillis in November—is being recruited to take on the state's other Republican senator, Richard Burr, in 2016. (Hagan won praise from Democrats for the campaign she ran, even in losing.) In Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak (63), a former admiral and U.S. representative who narrowly lost to Pat Toomey in the 2010 Senate race, is also itching for another shot at the Republican—though Democrats hope and expect to get other takers on that race.

It's not quite fair to call any of these candidates retreads—all four lost during Republican wave years, and all could be formidable candidates. In some ways, that's what's so scary: that Democrats simply don't have younger candidates waiting who are nearly as strong as the veterans. Adding to the worries are demographic shifts in American politics: Senior citizens, once a Democratic constituency, now consistently line up in the GOP column. Democrats, meanwhile, are pinning their hopes on an influx of younger voters and minorities to lift the party going forward. In the 2012 election, Obama handily won voters younger than 45, but lost older ones—including a 44-56 drubbing in the 65-and-up crowd.

Strickland, Feingold, Hagan, and Sestak don't quite jibe with that. Of course, young voters will vote for older candidates—it's always been that way. (The average age of a senator is 62.) But even if they win, those candidates won't serve forever, and someone's going to have to replace them eventually. Like these Democratic contenders, the problem isn't new, but there's no clear answer in sight.