P.G. Sittenfeld’s Facebook page is flooded with links to his favorite articles and pictures of his meals at Skyline Chili, the famous Cincinnati establishment. An upbeat Cincinnati councilman with an active social media presence, Sittenfeld wants to be America’s first senator of the millennial generation. But first, he’ll have to mount a David and Goliath–style upset against two of the biggest names in Ohio politics—former Governor Ted Strickland, Sittenfeld’s opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, and incumbent Republican Senator Rob Portman.
As millennials are set to take center stage in the Democratic Party—they’ll comprise 40 percent of the total electorate by 2020, according to the Center for American Progress—Strickland versus Sittenfeld highlights an emerging generational split within the party. And by chance, their battleground is Ohio, that “swingiest” of swing states that has predicted the presidency in every election since 1964. There couldn’t be a more appropriate time and place to help decide the future of the Democratic Party.
Outside their shared identification as liberal Democrats, the two candidates are a remarkable study in contrasts. For one, Strickland would be the oldest freshman senator if elected (he’d be 76 during the 2017 inauguration). Sittenfeld, 30, just barely satisfies the constitutional age requirements for the position.
If Sittenfeld’s ambition seems to stretch far beyond his political experience, don’t be fooled: The councilman has a track record of defying the political norms that value experience and seniority. In 2011, Sittenfeld became the youngest council member in Cincinnati history. When he ran for re-election two years later, he was the highest vote-getter by more than 10,000 votes.
Strickland, an ordained minister and the son of a steelworker, is beloved by liberals in the state, who have fond recollections of his tenure as governor from 2007 to 2011. His political career in Ohio dates back to the 1970s, before Sittenfeld was even born. “Strickland has paid his dues,” says Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. Even after losing his re-election bid in 2010, “he has been campaigning and showing up to help his party. That goes a long way.”
As a clear underdog, Sittenfeld is framing himself as the type of fresh new voice that would make him less vulnerable to Republican attacks on his record. “There’s good experience, and then there’s bad experience,” Sittenfeld says. “In contrast [to Portman], I think that I have the right kind of experience. Cincinnati is a city where government is working. We are a city that's on the move, we are adding new jobs, we are partnering with our school system in really effective ways, we are embracing technology and innovation to solve problems. I think new leaders stepping up who have not been part of the problem is exactly what the U.S. Senate needs.”
Though it is anchored in part by the younger vote, the Democratic Party has seen few young progressives matriculate into the upper echelon of American politics. As reported by FiveThirtyEight, Democratic members of Congress are, on average, older than their Republican counterparts. In the 113rd Congress, which ended in January, the average Democrat was 59.6 years old, compared to 55.8 for Republicans. Even when just considering new members, this age divide persists.
The gap is especially pronounced in California, the progressive haven that boasts a young and diverse population, yet is governed by a significantly older and whiter cohort of Democrats. Governor Jerry Brown, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are all at least 74 years old. With Boxer’s impending retirement, there’s some indication that a hungry bench of younger Democrats may soon have its time to shine.
“There’s a disconnect between the issues of importance of elected officials and young people,” says Erin Carlstrom, executive vice president of the Young Democrats of America, and a councilwoman in Santa Rosa, California. “It’s a challenge to bring young people to the table, and to convince party leaders that young people have distinct interests and deserve to be there. We need to dictate that there is room for everybody."
From climate change to same-sex marriage, there is largely agreement between young liberals and the party establishment. Yet, on issues such as marijuana legalization and college affordability, important divisions emerge. Carlstrom has seen some promising efforts by Democrats to better address the concerns of the base’s younger demographic, namely Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s crusade to ease the burden of student loans.
“Thankfully, we have hit a critical mass,” Carlstrom says, “where politicians are realizing that it’s our tax dollars that will fund Social Security, and our classmates that have been serving overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
With the rising cost of elections—in 2014, it took an average of $1.2 million to win a congressional seat, and $8.6 million in the Senate—older, well-established candidates are at a distinct advantage over their younger counterparts.
“The older you are, the better embedded you are in the community,” says Jennifer Lawless, a government professor at American University, “which means that it’s easier to raise money and build relationships.” In May, Lawless published Running from Office: Why Young Americans are Turned Off to Politics with Richard L. Fox, an in-depth analysis of the political ambitions of young Americans (or rather, lack thereof). “Those are substantial tradeoffs when you are running a first-time candidate, especially a young one,” she adds. “It’s difficult to shy away from candidates who are older and more well-established.”
A basic familiarity with new technology is ubiquitous among millennials, lending hope that a new generation of politicians could marshal these skills in reducing some of the bureaucratic inefficiencies that plague government. “I look at the United States Senate as a body of 100 problem solvers,” says Sittenfeld. “And I think [for] the Senate to not have a single person from the biggest generation in American history, for the United States Senate to not have a single person from the most technologically-savvy generation in American history: We could do better.”
With ringing endorsements from Bill Clinton to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown accumulating for Strickland, many are wondering what Sittenfeld hopes to achieve in his long-shot candidacy. An early Quinnipiac University poll gives Strickland, at 48 percent, a 9-point advantage over Portman at 39 percent, while a full 89 percent of Ohioans indicated that they lacked the information to make a judgment about Sittenfeld.
In mid-April, the Ohio Democratic Party’s Executive Committee followed through with the decision to endorse Strickland, further stacking the deck against the nascent Sittenfeld campaign.
“Outside of [Cincinnati], voters are more familiar with their third cousin, first removed, then they are with P.G.,” says Chris Redfern, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, who claims that Sittenfeld assured him that he would drop out of the race once Strickland announced his entrance. “Now he appears stubborn, and that he knows better than those that built the party.”
Sittenfeld might be playing the long game, laying the groundwork for a more viable statewide candidacy in 2018 or 2020. “It’s hard to get statewide name recognition in a state as large as Ohio,” says Beck, the Ohio State professor. “There are a lot of media markets in this state, and there’s been a saying that you have to run for statewide [office] and lose first to get the name recognition needed for a successful run.”
The Sittenfeld dream of a millennial revolution in politics may still be some years away. Regardless of who emerges from the Democratic primary in 2016, the candidate will have their work cut out for them—a victory against Rob Portman would not only prove crucial to the Democrats’ chances of reassuming control of the Senate, but also could affect the fight for Ohio’s coveted 18 electoral votes.
“Presidencies hinge on this state,” says Redfern. “Wars are decided based on this state. Bigotries are written into law, or hopefully out of law, in this state.” Sittenfeld’s goal, it seems, is to bring millennials to the forefront of those decisions, despite the long odds.