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U.S. congressional lifers face primary challenge

U.S. Representative Charlie Rangel (D-NY) speaks to the members of the media in front of his House office on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 16, 2010.


Charlie Rangel, Dick Lugar and Orrin Hatch have spent a combined 112 years in Congress, which is only slightly less astonishing than their combined ages of 239 years.

This trio of congressional lifers has been in the news of late primarily because each is facing a serious primary challenge this year. Their determination to preserve their seats in spite of their ages sheds light on the fascinating longevity of U.S. politicians.

Mr. Rangel, 81, Mr. Lugar, 80, and Mr. Hatch, 78, are hardly standouts. Twenty-six U.S. senators are over 70. They are studies in stamina and fund-raising firepower, since, unlike their Canadian counterparts, they must survive daily in the lion's den of U.S. electoral politics.

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Mr. Rangel, a member of the House of Representatives, has lorded over his Harlem district for more than four decades. You might think he'd be tired by now. But despite being censured for ethics violations and plagued by health problems, Mr. Rangel seems raring for another fight as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Rangel's challenge in the June 26 primary stems from boundary changes that have transformed his district from an all African-American enclave into a moderately gentrified Manhattan neighbourhood that is half Hispanic.

Mr. Lugar and Mr. Hatch are facing challenges of an entirely different sort. Both Republicans first won election to the Senate in 1976 and are representative of an era in U.S. politics that was characterized by collegiality and bipartisanship in Congress.

Now, Mr. Lugar and Mr. Hatch are fighting for their political lives in a GOP defined by Tea Party politics. Both are struggling to fend off charges that their willingness to compromise with Democrats has left the country mired in debt and moral decay.

At Utah's GOP convention on Saturday, Mr. Hatch narrowly failed to capture the 60 per cent of votes he needed to avoid a primary run-off in June. His main challenger, who is 37, warned that "no one senator is too big to fail."

"I'm a tough old bird. I've never felt more eager, more exited or more energized," Mr. Hatch riposted, proving that, if he doesn't win the nomination, he can always get a gig hawking Geritol.

Mr. Lugar is also chomping at the bit to preserve his Indiana seat. He faces a stiff challenge in the May 8 GOP primary there, as Tea Party groups line up behind state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

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Should one of these giants lose his primary, it would indicate the rules of engagement are changing. Traditionally, incumbency has been an overwhelming barrier to entry in U.S. politics. If all three men lose, it could mean the old rules no longer apply.

There were early signs of that in the 2010 midterm elections, when Mr. Hatch's Utah colleague in the Senate, Robert Bennett, then 76, lost the nomination to a Tea Party insurgent. Mike Lee, now 40, went on to win the Utah seat in the fall election.

Mr. Lee is the youngest member of the Senate and his election, along with that of a sizeable cohort of Tea Party upstarts in the House of Representatives, chopped several months off the average age of members of Congress.

In the current 112th Congress, the average age of senators is 62.2 years, while members of the House average 56.7 years in age. To run for office, House members must be at least 25, while senators must be 30.

While Mr. Rangel, Mr. Lugar and Mr. Hatch have all had impressive political careers, they are far from entering the record books.

Michigan Democrat John Dingell, 85, has been in the House for 56 years. Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, also a Democrat, has been in the upper chamber for 49 years.

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But even they have a few years to go to match the record of West Virginia's Robert Byrd, who spent almost six decades in Congress – 52 of them as a senator – before his death at 92 in 2010.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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