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Does Sen. Dianne Feinstein's age matter?

October 30, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein, if reelected, would be 85 at the conclusion of an additional term.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, if reelected, would be 85 at the conclusion of an… (Tom Williams / Roll Call…)

In her uphill campaign against Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Republican Elizabeth Emken, albeit obliquely, has made an issue of Feinstein’s age. The senator turned 79 on June 22 and if reelected she would be 85 at the conclusion of one more term.

Would that be unusual? Yes, but not unprecedented. In the current Senate, Feinstein is the fifth oldest member. Three senators are 88: Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii. No. 4 is 80-year-old Richard Lugar of Indiana, who was defeated in his bid for renomination in this year’s Republican primary.

The consensus is that Lugar lost to Richard Mourdock (later to be infamous for his comments about God and rape) because Lugar had moved too far to the center. But Lugar’s age might have been a factor for some voters, just as age might have played a role in 80-year-old Arlen Specter’s defeat two years ago in a Democratic primary. (Specter died last month of cancer in what would have been the second year of a sixth term.)

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On the other hand, voters in West Virginia were happy to return Robert Byrd to the Senate in 2006 when he was 88. He died in 2010.  Strom Thurmond won his last Senate race at the age of 93 and turned 100 before finishing his term.

It’s also important to note that, although Feinstein is in the top five, 28 senators are 70 or older including Feinstein's California colleague Barbara Boxer. That’s more than a quarter of the Senate.  Other septuagenarians running for reelection this year are Bill Nelson of Florida, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

And it isn't just the Senate that is senior-friendly. In addition to two U.S. senators in their 70s, supposedly youth-obsessed California has a 74-year-old governor in Jerry Brown.

Age isn’t “just a number.” At the same time, it’s evident that people are living and thriving longer. (That’s why the solvency of Social Security is, or should be, an issue.)  It wouldn’t be a medical miracle if Feinstein remained healthy and active through another term.  But as an octogenarian she would definitely be in a small and select group.

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