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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

An awkward 2024 question: How old is too old?

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Title iconThe News
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The 2024 campaign for the U.S. Senate kicked off on Tuesday, at a Democratic Party club in northern California, where hundreds of voters gathered to meet Rep. Katie Porter. It started with a few words of thanks for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who’d spoken to the Rossmoor Democrats before, and who hadn’t announced whether she’d seek re-election.

A few reporters had asked Porter about the optics, or the tact, of running before Feinstein, 89, made her mind up. Nobody in Rossmoor, a community for people 55 and older, did.

“It's really a good time for the senator to retire, after an illustrious career,” said Katha Hartley, 82, the chair of the club’s speakers committee. “We want her to have all of the accolades that she deserves. But I'm not upset at all about the fact that Katie Porter announced or that other Democrats are looking at it.”

As the next electoral map shapes up, and as both parties consider re-nominating the oldest and second-oldest presidents in 2024, voters are talking a little more openly about the age of their potential candidates.

That conversation is loudest in California, after Porter’s decision not to wait for an announcement or blessing from the state’s longest-serving senator. It’s also taking place in Michigan, where retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow has said she’ll “pass the torch to the next generation of leaders,” and Indiana, where former Gov. Mitch Daniels, 73, is considering a one-term run for another open seat.

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New ads from the Club for Growth, which supports Rep. Jim Banks in that race, refer to Daniels’ “50 years” in government, starting the clock with his Nixon-era work in Indianapolis’ city hall.

“Even more problematic is that because of his age, he has committed to only serve one term if elected,” said David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth PAC.

And in one of the first interviews after Banks announced his bid, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt highlighted Daniels’s age and suggested that the 43-year old congressman could do more with the job.

“It takes two terms to actually get anywhere in the Senate,” said Hewitt. There was a downside, said Banks, to putting an elder statesman in the seat for just six years.

“It would not serve Indiana well to only limit myself to one term,” Banks told Semafor. “I recognize that seniority and experience matters in the Senate.”

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The race in Michigan is less settled, with multiple members of Congress and statewide electeds still considering when and whether to run. Stabenow’s remarks about the “next generation” have been interpreted as a hint that she wants Rep. Elissa Slotkin, 46, or another one of the forty-something Democrats elected since 2018 to replace her.

They initially shifted attention away from Rep. Debbie Dingell and former Rep. Brenda Lawrence, just a few years younger than Stabenow, who’ve used media interviews to assert their interest in the race.

Feinstein hasn’t said much about her preferred successor; the age question emerged more organically. In Rossmoor, when one Democrat asked Porter about expanding Medicare and Social Security, the crowd laughed at a mention of how many “Social Security enjoyers” were in the room. Porter got her own laughs when she mentioned “raising three lightly supervised children in Irvine” to voters whose own children were older.

Three other Democrats have confirmed their interest in running, and started to build potential campaigns: Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Ro Khanna, and Rep. Barbara Lee. That choice, said some Democratic voters, was also about how long a new senator could serve. Khanna would turn 49 before the 2024 election, Schiff would turn 64, and Lee would turn 78.

As the only Democrat who voted against declaring war on Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, Lee had enormous credibility with progressives. Several voters described her as a potential “transition” figure, who might serve one term, while one potential rival said her age shouldn’t be a factor.

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“It’s irrelevant,” Khanna told Semafor. “She is one of the strongest anti-war voices in the nation, which resonates with many young people.”

undefined headshotDavid 's view

I’ve found voters to be a bit more blunt about the age of their potential candidates than politicians, though the latter’s not allergic to talking about it; see the many, many Republicans who insist the president has dementia.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s refusal to retire when Barack Obama could have replaced her put the fear into liberals, powering the successful 2021-2022 campaign to get Stephen Breyer off the bench. There is no polite way to broach the subject, and it can backfire, as Tim Ryan learned when he told a reporter that Biden was “declining” and then — in 2019, when both men were running for president — took it back. But I’m seeing more willingness among Democrats to factor in youth and potential seniority when a seat comes open.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

When Porter got into the race, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board criticized her audacity. The Senator, it wrote, had “earned the right to leave on her own terms.”

Title iconNotable
  • A Morning Consult/Insider poll last year found that politicians’ advanced ages are a “major problem” for 41% of voters. “There's near consensus among age groups — both the oldest and the youngest voters — and by party on all the political leaders being too old, or that being some problem,” Morning Consult senior reporter Eli Yokley said at the time.
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