In the aging Senate, 80-somethings seeking reelection draw little criticism

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrives for a vote, at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 27, 2024. (Kent Nishimura/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — While President Joe Biden tries to assuage voter concerns about his age in a presidential race that includes the two oldest men ever to seek the White House, a couple of miles away in the U.S. Senate, the gerontocracy remains alive and well — and little commented upon.

The recent news that two octogenarians — Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 82, and Angus King of Maine, 80 — are each running for another six-year term generated little in the way of criticism or worry over age of the kind that Biden has faced.


Their races, which both men are likely to win, are a reminder of how the Senate’s roster is chock-full of lawmakers staying in office at an age when most people are well into retirement. At the start of this Congress last year, the average age of elected officials was 64 in the Senate and 58 in the House.

“They’re not in short supply around here,” Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., 77, said of octogenarians.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader who swept aside concerns about his health after experiencing two freezes on camera last year, plans to step down from leadership at the end of this year. But McConnell, 82, has not committed either way to retiring or running again when his term ends in 2027.

Age and health have drawn intensive focus in the presidential race as Biden and former President Donald Trump, 77 — the two oldest people ever to run for president — vie for the White House. (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an independent candidate, has sought to portray his relative youth at 70 as an advantage over the two.)

But in the Senate, a governing body with a clubby atmosphere sometimes called the world’s most exclusive retirement home, seniority has long ruled. Years in office earn committee chairmanships, clout and the ability to direct more federal dollars to one’s home state. Voters tend to value that in their members of Congress — a contrast with how many of them view aging in the presidency.

And historically, letting go at the height of their power can be hard for elected officials who have hardly ever been better positioned to legislate on behalf of their constituents and who still feel as if they have more to give.

“With seniority comes the capacity to really be in leadership positions and to do things that are really important for you and your state,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “You can do more the longer you’re here, and so people have to assess their own personal situations and their family situations.”

The Senate offers a wide range of examples of people aging at work. Some, like Sanders and King, maintain a sprightly constitution that belies their years.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the oldest current sitting senator, won reelection in 2022 at 89 after a campaign that included a video of him doing pushups with a fellow Republican senator more than 40 years his junior. He is active on social media, where he often posts about his predawn runs and his ice cream stops at Dairy Queen.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., died in office last year at 90 after a long and excruciatingly public decline as she faced pressure to step down early or retire.

Stabenow plans to retire this year at 74, citing in part a desire to spend more time with her 97-year-old mother.

“I thought it was time to pass the torch,” she said.

Grassley, now 90 and the longest-serving senator, said he decided to run for an eighth term in 2022 after consulting with his family, hearing encouragement from Iowans, considering his health — “real good,” he said — and concluding that as a senior member of the Senate, he would be well positioned to advocate for his home state.

“It’s a personal decision,” he said of his contemporaries’ choice to run as octogenarians. “And as long as they think they can continue to serve, I think with their institutional background, it benefits the Senate.”

Sanders and King, both independents who caucus with Democrats and are popular at home, said they felt up to the task and ready to continue delivering for their constituents.

“I have been, and will be if reelected, in a strong position to provide the kind of help that Vermonters need in these difficult times,” Sanders said in announcing his bid for reelection.

Sanders, who would be 89 at the end of his next term, holds significant power as the chair of the Senate health committee. He also serves on the Democratic leadership team and on several other committees, including the budget, environment and public works, and veterans’ affairs panels.

“Age is a factor. So is experience; so is seniority and the ability to deliver for your state,” Sanders said in a brief interview at the Capitol, noting with characteristic grumpiness that he had already “answered that about 300 times.”

“Most importantly, what people have to determine is, does a candidate stand with their values?” he said. “What are their positions on the issues? So if you have some young people who are wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare and give huge tax breaks to the rich and ignore climate change — well, that may be a generational change, but I don’t think it’s a great change.”

King borrowed a joke from Ronald Reagan when asked how, if at all, age factored into his decision to run for a third term.

“I absolutely refuse to make the youth and inexperience of my opponents an issue,” he said.

“I feel great,” added King, who would be 86 at the end of another term. “Maybe there was a mistake on my birth certificate.”

Democrats defended the two independents’ decision to run again and described them as energetic and capable of continuing to serve.

“I don’t think the question any longer is chronological age,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii and a relatively young senator at 51, adding that Sanders and King could pass for 70. “It’s vigor and intellect and energy — and they’ve both got it.”

“Aside from him having all the energy,” Welch, a Democrat, said of Sanders, “all of the moral clarity that he brought to politics as a young man is alive and well. He’s very popular in Vermont. People are quite proud of him. And what I’ve seen is people are quite delighted that he’s running for reelection.”

Still, some of Sanders’ and King’s contemporaries have decided to hang up their hats this year.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, 80, announced he would retire this year after serving 58 years in public office, despite saying he felt “great.” Cardin, who is celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary this year, joked that his wife had had just “two good years” of marriage.

“It’s time for me to consider other things in life,” said Cardin, D-Md., who serves as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Thomas Carper, 77, said he wanted to retire “at the top of my game.” Carper, D-Del., serves as the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Senators in both parties argued that voters may see advanced age differently when it comes to their presidential candidates. The “visibility” of the role, Grassley argued, shapes how voters perceive the issue in the race between Biden and Trump.

“Voters are going to react to one person versus another depending on how they present themselves,” Welch said. “The presidency is obviously the most demanding job in the country, so that’s on people’s minds.”

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