Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D) announced today that he'll run for Senate, making a bid for first-termer Rob Portman's seat. Democrats are generally overjoyed that Strickland, thought to be by far their strongest possible candidate, will join the race.
Yet Strickland would be starting his Senate career rather late in life — if elected, he'd be 75 upon taking office in January 2017. This isn't a criticism — Strickland seems quite healthy and youthful. Ideally, some Ohio Democrats might prefer a younger senator who could accumulate more seniority over several decades, but that only matters if he or she could win the general election — and Strickland seems to have the best chance of doing that.
Yet it's noteworthy that while there have been much older sitting members of this famously wizened chamber (Strom Thurmond of South Carolina reached age 100), we can't find an example of any elected first-time freshman senator joining at such an old age. So, just for historical interest, here are some of the oldest people ever to join the Senate — let us know if we've missed someone.
1) The oldest freshman senator ever: Rebecca Latimer Felton (D-GA, 1922, age 87)
When a Senate seat opened up in Georgia in 1922, Governor Thomas Hardwick wanted it for himself — but he had a problem. The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution had been ratified two years earlier, preventing women from being denied the vote on the basis of sex — and Hardwick had been a noted opponent of women's suffrage. With a Senate seat at stake, he had to try to win over the women's vote.
So Hardwick decided that, as he ran for the seat himself, he would nominate the first-ever woman senator for the short time remaining in the term — and chose Rebecca Latimer Felton, who at 87 years old surely would never run for the seat herself. Felton had been a longtime advocate for giving women the vote. She was also a virulent racist, former slave-owner, and supporter of lynching (she helped get an Emory University professor fired for arguing that lynching was wrong).
Since Congress had already adjourned when Felton was appointed, it was expected that she'd never be officially sworn in. But, in a symbolic gesture, she ended up being sworn in for just one day in November 1922, serving just 24 hours before the winner of the election took over the seat. In her one floor speech, she called Gov. Hardwick (who had lost the election) "chivalric" and praised Georgia for letting her, an "old lady," "look at the Senate for even a day," the Wall Street Journal's Cameron McWhirter writes. No other woman would serve in the Senate until 1931.
2) The second-oldest freshman senator ever: Andrew Jackson Houston (D-TX, 1941, age 86)
Appointing a venerated elder statesman to briefly fill an open Senate seat is a classic move for governors who want the seat themselves. So, as with Rebecca Felton, Texas Governor Pappy O'Daniel found a perfect seatwarmer in 86-year-old Andrew Jackson Houston — son of the legendary Sam Houston and named after the former president. Yet Houston didn't keep the seat warm for very long — the arduous trip from Texas to DC seemed to hurt his health. He was sworn in on June 2, 1941, but fell ill four days later and died on June 26. Two days after Houston's death, Gov. O'Daniel narrowly won the special election for his seat — defeating an upstart Congressman named Lyndon Johnson by just over 1,000 votes, in an election rife with fraud.
3) Sort of but not really the oldest elected freshman senator: Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ, 2003, age 78)
After an eighteen year Senate career, Lautenberg decided not to run for another term in 2000. Yet he soon found retirement boring and itched to get back in the game.
So when Sen. Robert Torricelli, up in 2002, suddenly withdrew from the race due to a corruption investigation, Lautenberg had his opportunity. A party in desperate need of a new candidate backed him, and his name was swapped in place of Torricelli's on the ballot with a controversial state Supreme Court ruling.
But when Lautenberg rejoined the chamber, he got an unpleasant surprise — his 18 years of accumulated seniority would be thrown out, and he'd be treated as a mere freshman by his party. Lautenberg served for 10 more years before dying at age 89 in 2013, and Cory Booker won his seat in a special election.
4) Oldest first-time elected freshman senator that we can find: Paris Gibson (D-MT, 1901, age 70)
Paris Gibson founded Great Falls, Montana and helped build it into a trade center in the late 1800s. But when Montana's state legislature had to fill an open Senate seat due to a resignation, Gibson wasn't their first choice. The legislature was bitterly split between two other candidates, and supporters of each refused to back the other over 22 ballots. Finally, on the twenty-third ballot, support was thrown behind Gibson as a compromise candidate. He was 70 years, 9 months old when he was sworn in to fill the four years remaining in the term and didn't run again — though he lived to age 90.
5) Oldest first-time elected freshman senator in recent decades: SI Hayakawa (R-CA, 1977, age 70)
Professor SI Hayakawa, who had a doctorate in semantics and eventually became the president of San Francisco State University, won statewide fame in 1968 by confronting student protesters — he "climbed onto a sound truck" and "ripped the wires from the loudspeaker," according to his obituary. He parlayed his newfound popularity into a run for office, joining the Republican Party and narrowly defeating an incumbent Democrat in 1976.
Sworn in at age 70 — when he was a few months younger than Paris Gibson — Hayakawa quickly gained a more unwelcome sort of fame, as the press noticed that he frequently fell asleep in public during meetings. With support waning, he decided not to run for a second term.
6) Current senator who was oldest when he joined the Senate: Angus King (I-ME, 2013, age 68)
A popular former governor and political independent, King launched a surprise political comeback in 2012 after Sen. Olympia Snowe decided to retire, complaining about partisanship in Washington. King, an independent, saw this as the perfect opening for him to win the seat.
King quickly cleared the field of serious candidates despite playing coy about which party he'd caucus with. After winning easily, he caucused with the Democrats, as was pretty much universally expected. He was sworn in at age 68, and is now 70. So if Strickland joins the Senate in 2017, he won't be the only septuagenarian freshman.