WASHINGTON — California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s age has become an increasingly unavoidable part of her biography.
“At age 84, Dianne Feinstein is the oldest of the 100 United States senators,” Los Angeles Times columnist Harold Meyerson began a July op-ed that argued she shouldn’t run for re-election. A December Washington Post article also highlighted that Feinstein is the oldest member of “the oldest Senate ever.” “Saturday Night Live” even featured the veteran Democratic lawmaker — or rather, an impersonation of her — in a November skit mocking Democrats’ bid to repackage their aging leaders as fresh new faces.
Now, as she gears up for a race that would keep her in office until the age of 91, Feinstein’s biggest challenge may be to prove to voters that she hasn’t lost a step _ or lost touch with Californians’ values.
Feinstein’s main challenger, state Senate President Kevin de Leon, and his allies are trying their best to sow doubts about the latter, while insisting they are not going after the senator’s age. It requires walking a tricky rhetorical tightrope.
Even as the average age in Congress ticks upward, widening the generational gap with the American public, the issue of age in politics remains mostly taboo. Just ask Kelli Ward, the Arizona Tea Party candidate who faced a fierce backlash for calling Republican Sen. John McCain “weak” and “old” during their 2016 primary race.
Last year, Meyerson was one of several political commentators who ventured to call for Feinstein’s retirement, citing her age. It’s not just a question of physical health, they argued, but whether the veteran Democrat, whose conciliatory comments about Trump last August drew the ire of progressives, is still in touch with the state and its voters.
They were swatted down by the editorial boards of leading California newspapers.
“Given her amply evident competence, the idea that Feinstein shouldn’t seek re-election because of her age is offensive,” the San Diego Union-Tribune opined a day after Feinstein announced her re-election bid on Oct. 9.
Polling, however, shows California voters have some doubts. In a September 2017 poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, less than half of likely voters said Feinstein should run again. A poll from the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies last spring found that highlighting the senator’s age caused a drop in support for her re-election.
Still, she maintains a comfortable, if not commanding, lead over the 51-year-old de Leon in recent head-to-head matchups.
The Los Angeles Democrat has made the generational difference between himself and Feinstein a central plank of his long-shot challenge. Because of the state’s top-two primary system, where the top two finishers advance to the general election, de Leon is poised to be Feinstein’s opponent next November.
His remarks at his campaign launch in mid-October were laced with implicit digs at Feinstein’s 25-year tenure in Congress. California is “the greatest beacon of opportunity the world has ever known, but we didn’t get here through years of political seniority, we built it with acts of audacity,” he declared.
De Leon and his supporters say Feinstein’s age, itself, is not the issue.
“A Progressive California is supporting Kevin de Leon for U.S. Senate because he has been a powerful voice on issues from environmental protection to immigrant rights to health care for all,” said Mac Zilber, a strategist for the pro-de Leon Super PAC, A Progressive California. “We have no plans to make age an issue in this race.”
Liberal blogger and de Leon backer Markos Moulitsas said, “If there’s any quote-unquote age gap, it is that the California (Feinstein) thinks she represents no longer exists.”
The Golden State, Moulitsas said, is “at the vanguard of the progressive movement,” but the moderate, consensus-building Feinstein “is utterly divorced from that.”
It’s not that easy, however, to separate Feinstein’s age from the critiques of her long tenure in office, said University of California, San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser. The fact that Feinstein is in her 80s feeds into the entire narrative of the race, which pits experience and wisdom against a new voice and fresh approach, he said.
De Leon, then, doesn’t need to talk directly about Feinstein’s age. “She’s had such a long career that you don’t need to make the point,” explained Kousser, an expert on California politics. “You just need to say, ‘I’m going to bring a new voice, an energetic voice to Washington, D.C.'”
Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s political strategist, agreed that Californians are “well aware” of Feinstein’s age, but doesn’t think it hurts her. She does particularly well among the state’s Democrats in recent polling, Carrick noted, a sign voters prefer familiarity over someone “they’ve never heard of.”
Still, Jennifer Duffy, the Senate race analyst for the Cook Political Report, thinks Feinstein will need to reassure voters her age won’t be an impediment to her work in Washington. “She’s going to have to prove she’s got the stamina,” Duffy said.
Feinstein’s supporters say it’s clear she does. “I’ve worked with Sen. Feinstein … in the last year,” said Democratic strategist Karen Skelton. “I can tell you 100 percent she’s all there.”
The California senator has also avoided major health scares. Feinstein had a pacemaker installed in January 2017 but only missed one day of work. Prior to that, she’d missed almost no votes in three years.
In that regard, she’s fared far better than many of her octogenarian colleagues. McCain, who is 81, is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer and was recently being wheeled around the Capitol in a wheelchair, his left foot in a medical walking boot. Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, 80, was absent from the Senate for long stretches in 2017 due to a series of health issues.
That’s prompted a round of hand-wringing in Washington about the “graying” of Congress. In December, the Senate was forced to delay a vote on the tax bill due to McCain and Cochran’s absence, which The Washington Post pointed out in its article was at least the third time last year that Senate leaders had “paused action to accommodate ailing colleagues.”
The average age of Congress — and the Senate, in particular — has been rising steadily for years. It’s now 63 years old, a decade older than the Senate average in 1981 (and almost three decades older than the median age of Americans). There are now a record eight sitting senators in their 80s. Duffy said that’s partly a function of the fact Americans are living longer, healthier lives. “Eighty-four is the new 64,” she joked.
It’s also still a long way from the longevity achieved by Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who was still in the Senate when he hit 100 in 2003. West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, died in office at 93 in 2010.