Seniority not the boon it once was

Greg Nash / Courtesy

Seniority was once valued in politics, but this year, incumbents are having trouble convincing voters that politicians get better with age. 

It’s an issue that was front and center last week in 76-year-old Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) primary runoff battle with state Sen. Chris McDaniel, and was a driving force in 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall’s (R-Texas) loss last month. 

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For both Hall and Cochran, it’s not just that their decades of service are seen as a detriment — questions about the effects of their age are popping up, too. 

Cochran might have given his detractors more fuel for those charges over the past few weeks. After giving an interview on Wednesday commenting on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) stunning primary loss last week, Cochran, in a separate interview on Thursday, seemed unaware of the upset or its significance. It was one of a series of such moments in the race during which Cochran appeared confused or forgetful concerning campaign issues.

Though McDaniel’s team hasn’t overtly pushed the issue, Cochran’s own comments have made it hard to ignore, even prior to his statements on Cantor last week.

“Certainly, there have been plenty of comments from each candidate in this campaign that have drawn attention to it,” noted Mississippi GOP Chairman Joe Nosef.

National media have questioned whether he’s “missing a few steps,” as Slate’s Dave Weigel put it prior to the runoff, noting his confusion when confronted with a question concerning the break-in at his wife’s nursing home — a major moment in the race. Cochran also appeared to have forgotten meeting The Atlantic’s Molly Ball during her visit to the state, and gave an eyebrow-raising defense of ObamaCare to The Washington Post, which his spokesman later said he thought was in response to a question concerning the VA scandal.

Cochran’s campaign believes the McDaniel camp has indeed sought to make Cochran’s age an issue — and that it’s already backfiring against him.

“Considering the McDaniel campaign broke into his wife’s nursing home, it is quite clear they are trying to make his age an issue,” said spokesman Jordan Russell, referencing the McDaniel supporter who allegedly snuck into Cochran’s wife’s nursing home room to take photos of her for a political hit video against the lawmaker.

“I do think it will backfire. Already is, according to the latest polling,” he added.

A survey out Monday from Democratic pollster Chism Strategies did show Cochran picking up some momentum and leading McDaniel by 1 point. Another survey out the same day, however, conducted for the pro-McDaniel Citizens United put the challenger ahead by 12 points.

Many speculate the age issue is part of the reason Cochran hasn’t been out on the campaign trail as much as some might expect from an incumbent senator facing a tough primary challenge. Prior to the runoff, Cochran spent weekends at home, typically delivering highly scripted stump speeches or making appearances at official events, with fewer impromptu visits with constituents.

And he’s consistently declined invitations to debate McDaniel, causing detractors to privately question whether he’d rather not engage in a format that could leave him open to further muddled comments.

Nosef said he doesn’t believe the age issue will be any more of a factor in the runoff than it was in the primary, and that voters are focused more on specific policy differences than personal issues.

“I don’t think last week was any different than any of the previous weeks in the race,” he said. “People are down to the granular issues, to the, ‘How’s this race going to affect me?’ ”

But it could be detrimental for Cochran because it gets at a potent policy issue playing out in GOP primaries nationwide this cycle: a general anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood.

That’s where age became a problem for Hall, who, at 91, is the oldest member of the House. He lost his primary runoff in May, after his opponent, John Ratcliffe, knocked him for his age.

A Hall adviser said age had never been a problem for the congressman, after polling the issue for more than a decade, until he hit 90.

“In our initial polling, we saw that, for some reason, 90 does poll different than being 88,” the adviser said. “Our drop-off basically doubled what it normally does when we pushed the age issue.”

The adviser said the campaign attempted to diffuse the problem by confronting it head-on, framing it as experience added and launching an ad in which he touted his “wrinkles” as a product of his successful policy fights on Capitol Hill. They sent Hall back to the district as much as possible “because when people are around him, they understand he’s still in the game.”

“We did not run from the age issue. We basically ran on experience,” the adviser added.

But this cycle, experience is perhaps more of a drag for incumbents than an asset. 

“The big deciding factor is the anti-incumbent attitude that exists right now,” the adviser said.

Indeed, McDaniel’s campaign has framed him as fresh blood in Washington, in contrast to Cochran, a “creature of Washington.” The age issue goes hand in hand with that idea, as it emphasizes how long he’s been there, and underscores the idea that a long tenure isn’t necessarily an asset.

Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who has worked in Mississippi before, said that McDaniel’s team has to be careful in how it uses the issue in the race, lest it provoke some “sympathy votes” for the well-liked Cochran. 

But McDaniel’s team hasn’t had to mention it outright, because Cochran, unlike Hall, has drawn negative attention to the age issue with his own comments. 

And it’s there that the incumbent could make the argument for McDaniel’s team, O’Connell said. 

“That is precisely the connection that the McDaniel campaign wants Mississippi runoff voters to make — the idea is, Thad’s a good guy; he’s served well, but it’s time to turn over the reins,” O’Connell said.