In two hotly contested primaries, age is creeping into the narrative and raising the specter of “ageism” as voters prepare to go to the polls.
In Texas, the oldest member of Congress – Rep. Ralph Hall (R) – faces a primary challenger 43 years his junior in a runoff next Tuesday, and the issue is starting to bite. Former US attorney John Ratcliffe said Thursday that he thinks age is fair game in the campaign to unseat Congressman Hall, who is in his early 90s.
"It's something the voters are concerned about," Mr. Ratcliffe said on MSNBC, when asked about Hall’s age. "It's certainly something that we haven't focused on in our campaign. I've talked about his tenure, the fact that I think he's been there too long, but voters raise the issue of his age, and I think that's fair for them to consider."
In Mississippi, six-term Sen. Thad Cochran (R) is in his mid-70s – a spring chicken, by the Senate’s historical standards – but he’s still fighting his primary opponent’s story line that it’s time for new (read: younger) blood. Senator Cochran is also facing allegations he’s avoiding public appearances back home.
What’s more, Cochran’s opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, is embroiled in a controversy over the actions of a supporter who allegedly photographed Cochran’s bedridden wife in her nursing home and posted a video online (since removed). The supporter has been arrested and faces felony charges. Senator McDaniel says he and his campaign had nothing to do with the actions of the supporter, a blogger named Clayton Kelly. The Cochran campaign is raising questions about the McDaniel camp’s denials.
Though the photos were of Cochran’s wife, the intent of the video was “clearly to make Cochran look like an old man,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Age is an issue as old as politics itself and has also already come to the fore in talk of the 2016 presidential race. When Karl Rove brought up Hillary Clinton’s health problems in her final stretch as secretary of State, he was also tacitly raising her age. If Mrs. Clinton runs and wins, she would be in her late 60s upon taking office – second only to President Reagan in age at the start of his first term.
Vice President Joe Biden, already a septuagenarian, hasn’t hid his presidential aspirations, and if he runs, will have to contend with the fact that he would be the oldest person ever to assume the American presidency.
Of course, the way to stop all the “old” talk is to demonstrate vigor in public. Vice President Biden regularly talks about how great he feels, and in public is a picture of energy and health. Clinton, too, is constantly in the public eye and showing no signs of slowing down.
But the Capitol is a different kettle of fish. The Senate, in particular, is affectionately known as the world’s finest nursing home. Some of its most illustrious members have served well into their 90s, surrounded by staff and caretakers. Aside from showing up for votes and the occasional floor speech, aides do most of the heavy lifting – the policy work, the constituent services.
The House hasn’t had nearly as many nonagenarians as the Senate. In fact, Hall is the oldest person ever to serve there. A member for 34 years, he’s calling this campaign his last. He beat Mr. Ratcliffe in Texas’s March 4 primary, 45 percent to 29 percent, but because no one won a majority, the two face a runoff on May 27.
Hall has declined to debate Ratcliffe. Ditto Cochran in his race with McDaniel. In both cases, the challengers say the sitting members are dodging, but in reality, a longtime incumbent has little to gain from giving a young opponent such a high-profile forum.
In addition, public appearances carry special risk for an older member.
“Hall makes appearances at events without any cane or walker and carries himself well enough when asked to speak,” the Dallas Morning News reports. “However, every public meeting comes with the risk of offering visible evidence to any belief that this time around, Hall is too old.”
For Cochran, whose style has always been low key, the tight race against McDaniel in the June 3 primary seems trickier. He hasn’t done nearly as much in-person campaigning in Mississippi as McDaniel, allowing the challenger to claim the senator has lost touch with his constituents. On Thursday, the McDaniel campaign highlighted a Wall Street Journal article reporting that Cochran had spent only 230 days in Mississippi over a 2-1/2 year period, according to “public records compiled by a Cochran opponent.” In contrast, Mississippi’s other senator, Roger Wicker (R), spent 491 days back home over the same period, the Journal reports.
Working in Cochran’s favor is the Southern tradition of keeping senators in Washington for decades. The greater the seniority, the greater the benefits for the folks back home. And Cochran is all about taking care of Mississippi – its military bases, its universities, its people when natural disaster strikes. The name “Thad Cochran” is emblazoned on many a public building in the Magnolia State.
As for the blogger scandal, it could end up helping Cochran, whose wife, Rose, is diagnosed with advanced dementia. Taking photographs of an ill, elderly woman without her consent and posting them on the internet is not only illegal, it’s offensive, political analysts say. In Mississippi, where Southern good manners still count for something, the episode seems especially unseemly.