Commentary: The GOP’s ‘old man’ problem

Commentary: The GOP’s ‘old man’ problem


By Hastings Wyman –

This writer is 75, a perfectly reasonable age in my view. I’m also white and male, and uncomfortable with neither circumstance. But I suspect that in this media-driven age, when television, Facebook and other communication tools provide the public with the pictures of political candidates, my profile is not a particularly good one for winning votes from young people, women and minorities, and not a few old white men themselves, who don’t mind admiring the young. Youth and beauty, or a good facsimile thereof, are winners on the electronic screen, be it TV or computer.

That’s a problem for the Republican Party and is very apparent in the South this year. The youthful insurgents of the 60s and 70s who took over the reigns of government in the South for the Grand Old Party after decades of Democratic hegemony are now getting up there. Even if the Republican candidates are younger than their Democratic opponents, if the Democrat happens to be a woman, she looks younger, and by virtue of being female, presents a warmer, more personable image to voters.

In North Carolina, for example, where US Sen. Kay Hagan (D) was supposed to be an easy target for the GOP this year, Republican Thom Tillis is struggling to make the sale. Tillis, at 54, has gray sideburns and looks distinguished if you are a voter of a certain age. But if you are young, or female, Hagan, 61, who hasn’t a gray hair in her head, looks younger and her smile more natural. Tillis looks intelligent, competent – and stodgy.

In Georgia, where the GOP was supposed to have locked up political power several years ago, disparities in age and/or gender are significant advantages for the Democratic nominees for US Senator and governor. In both contests, neither major party’s nominees are likely to win outright on November 4; both will go to runoffs, where who-knows-what will happen.

In the Peach State’s US Senate race, businessman David Perdue is 64. Like Tillis in the Tar Heel state, he looks intelligent, competent and, once again, stodgy. Not only is Democrat Michelle Nunn 17 years younger than Perdue, but her pedigree – daughter of former US Sen. Sam Nunn (D) – outweighs Perdue’s: He’s a former governor’s first cousin.

In the Georgia governor’s race, Democratic nominee Jason Carter doesn’t have a gender advantage, but he wins the old-vs.-young race hands-down. Carter is 35, incumbent Nathan Deal (R) is 72. Moreover, Carter has cache as the grandson of former governor and President Jimmy Carter.

Kentucky provides another example of the age/gender problem for the GOP. US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) not only has an impressive resume filled with accomplishments, for state and nation, but if the Republicans win control of the Senate, as appears probable, he will be at the zenith of his career. Thus, McConnell should be running away with it, but he’s having a tough time nailing it down. Alas for McConnell, he is 72 and his opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), is a mere 35, plus she’s pretty, which shouldn’t but probably does help her.

In Florida’s 2nd District (Tallahassee, etc.), two-term US Rep. Steve Southerland (R) is actually two years younger than his Democratic foe, attorney Gwen Graham. He’s 49, she’s 51. But Southerland is mostly bald (ditto this writer) and what hair he has is gray (ditto again). By contrast, Graham looks years younger – not a gray hair in her head, plus she’s pretty.

Republicans, however, aren’t totally on the losing side of candidates with flair. In both Oklahoma and South Carolina, Govs. Mary Fallin (R-OK) and Nikki Haley (R-SC) both earned some black marks during their first terms. Fallin endorsed the “Common Core” curriculum for schools, and had to eat crow. And Haley not only survived ethical inquiries by her GOP-controlled legislature, but suffered a scathing indictment of the state’s Department of Social Services for placing children at risk, on her watch. But despite having relatively strong challengers, especially in South Carolina, both Fallin and Haley are likely winners this year. The voters probably just don’t want to believe that women – who after all are representative of their mothers, their sisters and their wives – could be guilty of malfeasance.

Life, as Jimmy Carter once said, is not fair. On the other hand, it wasn’t fair during the years and years of male domination of Southern politics. Stay tuned.