Democrats Struggle With Age and Color Gap

They face a mismatch between their old white leaders and young voters who are increasingly black and Hispanic.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Aug. 29.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

For a party banking on America’s future, Democrats have grown top-heavy with leaders rooted in its past.

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California announced this week that she would seek reelection next year for a term that would extend past her 91st birthday, she underscored the generational logjam at the top of the party. Though the party now increasingly relies on younger and nonwhite voters, its post-Barack Obama leadership is almost entirely older and white.

The mismatch was evident in 2016, when Hillary Clinton, the party’s 69-year-old presidential nominee, struggled to excite millennial and minority voters despite the threat that Donald Trump posed to the values they hold dear. “There is a great urgency for Democrats now to turn the generational wheel,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of NDN, a Democratic advocacy and analysis group.

Yet younger and diverse leaders remain as rare as MAGA hats at the highest rung of the Democratic ladder. In the Senate, Democrats are led by three white seniors: Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (age 66) and assistant leaders Dick Durbin (72) and Patty Murray (67). In the House, the big three are Nancy Pelosi (77) and Steny Hoyer (78), both white; and James Clyburn (77), who is black.

The top of the potential 2020 Democratic presidential field is just as white—and gray. The three possible candidates with the largest national followings are Bernie Sanders (76), Joe Biden (75 next month), and Elizabeth Warren (68). The younger Democrats who might join them—from Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Kamala Harris of California, to even longer-shot possible candidates like Reps. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio—begin far back on name recognition and fundraising ability.

Congressional Republicans have an even weaker record on diversity—their top three leaders in each chamber are white men. But their leadership is younger; think House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Senate Conference Chair John Thune. In the 2016 presidential contest, two 40-something Hispanic Republicans, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, fought their way into the race’s final rounds.

Whites older than 45 now provide a majority of the votes for GOP presidential candidates. That means Democrats need to maximize both turnout and their margins among nonwhite and younger voters. Democrats decisively failed on that front in 2016: Turnout among white and Hispanic millennials disappointed, and it plummeted among younger African-Americans compared with 2012.

“Finding candidates like Obama who can excite this coalition that is far younger than the Republican coalition becomes a political necessity,” Rosenberg said.

In fairness to Democrats, it may be harder for them to elect minority candidates to statewide office, because the GOP label makes it far easier for nonwhites running as Republicans to attract more culturally conservative whites. But it’s also true that grooming candidates who reflect the Democratic coalition hasn’t been a priority for party officials in racially diverse states.

California exemplifies the problem. As of last November’s election, the state’s top elected positions were held by three white Democrats born before Pearl Harbor: Gov. Jerry Brown and Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. When Boxer retired, she created an opening for state Attorney General Kamala Harris, the energetic daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father. Harris (52) has provided a charismatic jolt of electricity to Democrats nationwide.

Many California Democrats were hoping Feinstein, at 84, might similarly allow another new figure to shine—someone like state Senate President Kevin de Leon (50) or Rep. Adam Schiff (57), a leader in the House Russia investigation. “There are people who are yearning to see some younger blood in the state,” Kimberly Ellis, who ran for state Democratic chair this year, told The New York Times.

Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s longtime chief strategist, told me such considerations pale against the practical value of reelecting a senator with seniority to challenge Trump. “Do you want to give that up now and start with a freshman senator, or do you want somebody who is going to take them on on issues like immigration and has the skill and the clout to get things done?” Carrick asked.

That’s a reasonable argument—and one voters will weigh if de Leon or another opponent challenges Feinstein in a primary next year. The problem for Democrats is what makes sense for any individual incumbent doesn’t compute for the party collectively. While Sanders energized millennials in 2016, and the salty Biden might project more authenticity to young people than Clinton did, Democrats are tempting fate by trying to rally a coalition for the internet era with so many leaders who can distinctly remember their first color TV.

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