- Age doesn’t necessarily define success in Congress. A leader’s character and platform count.
- More youthful representation would better serve the country, young members of Congress say.
- But cautionary tales abound.
- Read more from Insider’s “Red, White, and Gray” series.
This story was originally published on September 15, 2022 and has been updated to include recent developments.
Voters in western North Carolina chose youth when they elected Madison Cawthorn, widely considered a rising star of the Republican Party, to Congress when he was 25 years old.
Now, at 27, the firebrand conservative is on his way out of office.
His constituents booted him after a series of scandals.
Security agents caught Cawthorn with a gun at a local airport twice.
He claimed without evidence that Republican colleagues invited him to parties with cocaine and orgies.
He called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug” amid Russia’s invasion.
He appeared in lewd photos and videos leaked on social media.
And he faces insider-trading allegations, a STOCK Act violation, and several ethics complaints.
Republicans have dropped their support for Cawthorn, labeling the young millennial an “embarrassment” and “immature.” He joined the likes of former Reps. Aaron Schock of Illinois, Katie Hill of California, and Patrick Kennedy of Massachusetts, promising young lawmakers from both parties whose careers ended abruptly amid disgraces largely of their own making.
But members of Congress, political scientists, and strategists generally don’t blame age for these downfalls — leaders both young and old are prone to controversy. To them, a successful leader possesses a combination of qualities, all of which matter more than how old they are: experience, charisma, a vision for the future.
Running as a young person can strengthen one’s candidacy. Young people can offer new ideas to the policy debate, and that representation is crucial for a healthy democracy, experts say.
Age doesn’t define leadership
Four months in the making, Insider’s “Red, White, and Gray” series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation’s youth and future — technology, civil rights, energy, the environment — are largely in the hands of those whose primes have passed.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made history in 2019 as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at 29. Her ascent to stardom started with her 2018 primary upset against the 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley of New York. She’s championed progressive causes like the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.”
Her meteoric rise has inspired ambitious, young newcomers on the political left and right who praise her as a model leader.
“She’s definitely the vanguard for her party right now,” Cawthorn said of Ocasio-Cortez in a September 2020 interview with Jewish Insider, “and that’s something I want to be for the Republican Party.”
But experts said the totality of a candidate, not their age, shapes their leadership, and that’s what sets Cawthorn and Ocasio-Cortez apart.
“AOC can speak so well. She captures people’s attention and provokes a feeling that she’s confident, but at the same time, she’s charismatic,” Shauna Shames, a political-science professor at Rutgers University, told Insider. “Madison Cawthorn just can’t do that. That’s not because he’s young. It’s who he is and his lack of experience and his very weird, extreme views.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s youth is perhaps most evident through her social-media fluency — she’s discussed abortion rights and gun violence on Instagram Live, fundraised for Texas storm relief on Twitter, and encouraged Americans to vote while playing a video game live on Twitch. Still, the congresswoman, who will turn 33 in October, doesn’t define her leadership style by her age.
“There’s plenty of young members doing very strong work, and that, I think, has less to do with age, and I think it’s more of a personality and individual kind of situation,” she told Insider outside the House chamber at the Capitol.
Younger members of Congress also said they didn’t want to be pigeonholed by their age, nor stereotyped because of the actions of their peers.
“If we stopped electing old white men because an old white man had a scandal, I think we would have a very different Congress,” Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs of California, 33, told Insider. “So I’m not sure that you should judge every young person by the mistakes that one young person made.”
At 29, Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina was the youngest lawmaker when he assumed office in 2005. While he had some state legislative experience, he called Congress “a different beast entirely” that was “tough to learn.”
“It took me longer to figure the place out than some of my peers, and that had nothing to do with age and everything to do with my capacity,” McHenry told Insider at the Capitol.
He eventually caught up. McHenry relied on mentorship from his more experienced colleagues to navigate the institution. Over his 17-year career in the House, he has served as the deputy chief whip for his conference, become the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, and authored bills signed into law that promoted small businesses and entrepreneurship.
When asked about the troubles of Cawthorn, his fellow North Carolinian, McHenry dodged the question, pivoting to tout the success of another young GOP leader: Rep. Elise Stefanik, elected in 2014 at age 30 to represent northeastern New York. Now, at 38, she’s the third-highest ranking House Republican.
“Elise Stefanik was the youngest woman ever until Ocasio-Cortez got elected. Everyone has a different experience being a member of Congress,” McHenry said. “It’s important you work harder and smarter than everyone else.”
More youthful representation in Congress
The younger legislative blood represents but a few drops in Congress.
At the start of the current congressional session in January 2021, only 40 people aged 40 and under served in the 535-member institution, according to data gathered by FiscalNote. The average age of the House is 58. In the Senate, it’s older: 63.
On balance, baby boomers rule. Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York, 34, said he feels like “an infant” in Congress.
Sen. Brian Schatz was the youngest member of the upper chamber when he joined in 2012 at 40. Before that, he was the youngest lieutenant governor of Hawaii, the youngest chair of the state’s Democratic Party, and the youngest in the state legislature.
“I was always accustomed to being the youngest,” Schatz told Insider at the Capitol.
The now 49-year-old senator, an avid Twitter user and self-described climate hawk, said the country would be better served by voices that represent all parts of America.
“Congress should look like America, and that is diversity in every way: geographic, economic, age, ethnic background,” he said. “Congress has been improving in terms of becoming more diverse, but it still skews towards old white guys.”
The current youngest senator, Jon Ossoff, said he also believed Congress would benefit from more youthful representation because younger generations bring different ideas.
“One’s perspective, on the country, the world, on history, on the issues of the day, is influenced by one’s experience and one’s experience is formed by one’s era,” the 35-year-old Georgia Democrat said.
During his 2020 Senate campaign, Ossoff used TikTok to appeal to millennial and Gen Z voters and framed his platform around issues like the climate-change crisis and criminal-justice reform. Georgia’s runoff elections had record turnout, with more than half of the state’s 75,000 newly registered voters under the age of 35, The New York Times reported.
Ossoff told Insider that young candidates seeking public office should “consider youth as an asset — both a substantive asset for effective policymaking and also a political asset.”
Being young has often been wielded as a tool to boost a candidate’s standing, according to political strategist Eric Johnson. He’s spent more than three decades advising candidates and elected officials, including former Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy’s successful 2012 campaign against an older Republican incumbent in southeastern Florida.
“It was not a negative that Patrick Murphy was young. As long as you showed that you were qualified or that you passed a bar of being someone that they saw could serve, youth has always been appealing in every race that I saw,” Johnson said.
A recent study published in the journal Political Behavior found that voters don’t primarily consider age when judging candidates for office. Younger candidates may be perceived as less experienced, but that doesn’t make voters less likely to support them, researchers Damon Roberts and Jennifer Wolak concluded.
Murphy became the youngest member of Congress at the time, at age 29. He served for two terms in the House before his failed 2016 Senate bid against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Marco Rubio. Unlike some of his young colleagues who flamed out, Murphy had a “clean” exit, leaving him well positioned to return to public life if he chooses to, Johnson said.
Though Murphy, who now runs an artificial intelligence startup focused on construction software, told Insider that he’s lost much of the optimism around public service that he had when he was first elected a decade ago.
“I miss my naive perception of what politics is or was — about issues and debate and getting down into helping people, and so much of it isn’t that anymore. Knowing what I know now, it’s tough to really, seriously think about doing it again,” Murphy said. He then added, “never say never.”
Ideas matter more
While young members of Congress have encouraged others to run, expanding their presence doesn’t guarantee quality representation, political scientists said. Major problems that the youth care about can be advocated for no matter the leader’s age.
“After seeing candidates and elected officials like Madison Cawthorn or Matt Gaetz, I’m not sure that we want to have direct numeric representation,” Jennifer Lawless, a public-policy professor at the University of Virginia, told Insider. “We want people who are qualified and who have achieved relevant credentials and qualifications to serve.”
Several members of Congress likewise said a candidate’s platform was more important than how many birthdays they’ve had.
“It’s not your age — it’s the age of your ideas,” Sen. Ed Markey, 76, told Insider outside the Senate chamber at the Capitol. “And as long as your ideas are about the future, then when you are a candidate, people will listen to you.”
Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has served in Congress since 1976, two years after President Richard Nixon’s resignation. He’s connected with young people in the progressive movement, as has his fellow Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 73, and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 81.
And that’s why Ocasio-Cortez said she’d thrown her support behind those leaders in key recent election cycles, while also calling on young folks to run.
“I would prefer, in many cases, an older candidate that champions the issues of youth, as opposed to a younger candidate that really is presenting more of the same from what we’ve seen,” she told Insider.
Congress members across the political aisle echoed the sentiment.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a 38-year-old Texas Republican, called for “good leaders” to run for office, regardless of age.
“Do it for the right reasons. Know why you’re running,” he told Insider. “You’re not running to be something — you’re running to do something significant.”
The nation needs “more principled members of Congress,” Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, 35, told Insider, adding: “It doesn’t matter their age.”
Advice to young leaders
The 2022 midterm-elections cycle featured a slew of young candidates nationwide who won and lost. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the 25-year-old who clinched the Democratic nomination in central Florida, is poised to become the first Gen Z member of Congress. Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year-old Republican, failed to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress as she was defeated by Democratic incumbent Rep. Chris Pappas in New Hampshire. Democrat Emilia Sykes, 36, beat Republican Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, 30, in northeastern Ohio.
—Maxwell Alejandro Frost (@MaxwellFrostFL) August 24, 2022
But winning a seat in Congress and creating policy change once there are two separate tasks.
“The most important thing for a leader to do is to rely on older wisdom and not think that you just walk into any situation knowing everything,” Crenshaw said.
Layla Zaidane heads the Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan group that supports young elected officials at the state and national level so they can be effective at their jobs through training, building their relationships across the political spectrum, and fleshing out their policy ideas.
“If these rising legislators are going to be the future committee chairs and the future leaders and speakers of the House, then we ought to be giving them the professional development and training and expertise as early on as possible so that they have the greatest impact to scale that leadership and that culture,” Zaidane said.
Torres said he’s leaned on his older House colleagues as a young lawmaker of New York, naming Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, 74, and Maxine Waters of California, 84, as two of his mentors.
Ossoff said he’s frequently learned from the retiring 82-year-old Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest-serving member of the upper chamber.
Cawthorn’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A Republican with knowledge of Cawthorn’s controversies, whom Insider granted anonymity to so they could speak candidly, said young leaders could avoid pitfalls by working with experienced advisors.
“It’s so important,” this person told Insider, “to partner youth with experience and to have strong, committed advisors who believe the way that you believe, but have experienced more than you have, to keep you from stepping in the quicksand of the Washington swamp.”