Millennials Are Running for Congress. So Why Don't They Win?


Erin Schrode, a 24-year-old activist from Northern California, took a look at the makeup of Congress and decided it didn't represent her generation.

So she launched a bid for Congress as a Democrat in California's 2nd Congressional District — and received a spate of press in the process about her aspirations to become the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives.

Still, despite her best efforts, Schrode's dreams were dashed in the Golden State's June 7 primary. She drew just 9% of the vote against incumbent congressman and fellow Democrat Jared Huffman — making her one of a handful of millennials who have unsuccessfully attempted to run for Congress this year.

In that club are Alex Law, a 25-year-old Democrat from New Jersey, who failed to unseat Rep. Donald Norcross in a Democratic primary in June; Lindy Li, a 25-year-old Democrat who wound up withdrawing her candidacy in Pennsylvania; and Grant Starrett, a 28-year-old Tennessee Republican who unsuccessfully attempted to oust scandal-plagued GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais, an anti-abortion rights congressman who allegedly encouraged his ex-wife to have multiple abortions.

While each candidate saw varying degrees of success — with Starrett coming closest to a victory — all faced the same challenge that many millennials running for Congress come up against: They simply haven't lived long enough to build up the kind of infrastructure needed to win.

"When you try to jump from nothing to Congress, you're missing the initial steps of building a network, building a constituency, building a fundraising base," said Nathan Gonzales, a nonpartisan political handicapper who has been meeting with and assessing the chances of congressional candidates for more than a decade. "It's like jumping from college to the major leagues."

Experts say that reality is why the average age in the House is 57, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In a blog post following her loss, Schrode acknowledged her lack of fundraising base led to a lack of resources, which she needed to build support for her bid.

"Our two main needs from day one were name recognition and funding, the latter to fund the former," Schrode wrote. "Our 10-week timeline did not prove long enough. The most common question I have been asked is: 'Why don't I know you're on my ballot?' right down to Election Day, when a man drove by a group of us standing on the street corner with signs. The gentleman said that had he known who I was, he surely would have voted for me, rather than checking the default box for the incumbent Democrat."

More than just fundraising: A lack of resources isn't always the reason young candidates come up short.

For example, Li raised more than $500,000 as she attempted to run for Congress in Pennsylvania, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission.

However, Li tried to switch congressional districts in the middle of her run, a decision that led to a legal battle and ultimately her own withdrawal of her candidacy.

It was a failure Dave Wasserman, a nonpartisan political handicapper with the Cook Political Report, chalked up to inexperience — an obstacle he said many young candidates face.

"There's the political inexperience factor," said Wasserman, who also has also had a long career judging the chances of congressional candidates. "I see this all the time with young candidates who don't quite know what they're getting into. They run for Congress because they have a very confident sense of what they can accomplish in a race or in Congress, but it may not match up with reality."

Millennials in Congress: Still, while a handful of millennials have come up short in 2016, there is a contingent of current members who were elected — despite their age.

They include Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who in 2014 became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She was 30 at the time.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Before announcing her candidacy, Stefanik had built her own network during her time working in George W. Bush's White House, as well as on now-Speaker Paul Ryan's political team, where she helped him prep for debates when Ryan was the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.

"She already had the relationships to build a successful campaign to run for Congress," Wasserman said.

California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell is also part of the millennial contingent in Congress.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

He defeated an incumbent member of his own party in 2012, when he was just 31.

"What I would advise people to do ... is, don't set a course out for elected office," Swalwell said. "Run for a cause and you'll find your way there. And what I mean by that is, pick the issues that are important to you and you'll find the best way to serve those issues."

Swalwell added he had a mentor who advised him that he needed to get to know his community before running for office, encouraging him to serve on two city planning commissions before running for bigger office.

He took that advice, which he said helped him get elected as a city council member in his town of Dublin, California, in 2010 — a role that helped him win his congressional seat two years after that.

"If I had not had someone more senior to me giving me perspective, I would've run in 2006," Swalwell said of his city council race. "I probably would've lost and would not have known that just as important as learning your community is also to have mentors one step or generation above you who can lend a perspective to you."