A different way to consider McConnell’s (and Feinstein’s) Senate service
There has been a justifiable focus in recent years on the age of America’s leaders. President Biden is the oldest president ever to serve — and he’s running for reelection. His most likely opponent in 2024 is the guy who once held the title of second-oldest president in history, Donald Trump.
On Capitol Hill, there’s a similar pattern. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is one of the oldest senators to serve, but she’s only a few months older than Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). Feinstein’s age has attracted more attention, however, given questions about the senator’s physical and mental strength. Those questions have also begun to surround Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is the fourth-oldest currently serving senator.
Exploring the duration of each senator’s service in the wake of McConnell’s second recent incident of freezing in front of cameras, we stumbled onto an interesting bit of data. Grassley is unusually old for a senator and has also been serving in his position for an unusually long time. In fact, Grassley has been a senator for a quarter of the existence of Iowa. Of every week that Iowa has been a state, Grassley has been its senator for a day and a half.
And yet there’s another sitting senator who has served for a much larger part of her state’s existence.
Before giving away the answer, we’ll explain our methodology. There’s a project called @unitedstates that collects data on the government, from legislation to legislators. It has a database of the service of each U.S. senator since the birth of the country, allowing us to compare durations of service in the Senate with the duration of existence for each state. It’s a rough calculation, admittedly, but one that captures an interesting pattern.
If we compare the length of service for each senator to the length of time that his or her state has existed, we learn that the senator who served for the most of his state’s existence was Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye. Barring the addition of new states, that he was senator for three-quarters of the time that Hawaii has been a state seems like a record that will be hard to surpass. There’s a close challenger, though: Ted Stevens, who served as a senator from Alaska.
In fact, senators from Alaska make up five of the top seven senators on this metric. That includes two senators in the same family: Frank and Lisa Murkowski — the latter of whom is the answer to our trivia question above. (On the chart below, sitting senators are in bold.)
The surprise, certainly, is Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). She’s much younger than Feinstein, for example, but has been in office about as long. It’s just that Washington is a few decades younger than California. So while Feinstein lands at 42nd on this list, Murray squeezes into the top 25.
There’s certainly an aspect of this that’s a bit deflating, as that makes clear. Naturally, the newest states, including Hawaii and Alaska, have senators who have served larger percentages of their states’ existence. But that’s also in part because reelection rates for senators have been higher in recent decades.
It is also not entirely the case that there is a one-to-one relationship between the youth of a state and the average representation of its senators. You can see some variation in the average durations on the map below. New Hampshire’s senators have, on average, served for 12 percent of the state’s history. Vermont’s (thanks in part to Patrick J. Leahy) have served an average of 18 percent.
This metric includes a bias, considering only service relative to the current age of each state. If we look at the percentage of service relative to the year each senator left office, the picture changes. Here we admittedly run the risk of polluting our data with people who served two years in the first two years the state existed, so we narrowed this set of data down to those who left the Senate only after the state had been around for half of its current existence. (So, for Alaska, that means leaving service after 1991.)
Now, Grassley and Murray drop off the list. We get nine additions, though some are not household names.
If you’re curious, McConnell comes in 89th on the original metric, because Kentucky has been a state a lot longer than California or Washington. Former senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina benefits from his state’s age, too. He’s in 29th on the first list, simply because it’s hard to live long enough to make up a huge percentage of the existence of that state. (Though Thurmond gave it a good run.)
No one served for a larger percentage of South Carolina’s history than Thurmond. No one served for more of California’s than Feinstein. No one served for more of Kentucky’s than McConnell.
And, just to bring things full circle, no one served for more of Delaware’s than Joe Biden. Then he got another job.