Democrats are just one heartbeat away from losing control of the Senate. We analyzed how precarious their 'gerontocracy' majority really is.

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy’s brief hospitalization illustrates the Democrats’ fragile hold on power.
  • 5 Democratic senators and one Independent are 70+ and represent states with GOP governors. 
  • If any of them can’t finish their term their GOP governor could appoint a Republican replacement, ending the Democrats’ Senate majority. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Sen. Patrick Leahy gave the Washington establishment a scare last week when Capitol Hill doctors urged him to rush over to the hospital.  

A couple days later the Vermont Democrat said he was fine — just muscle spasms — and that he intended to serve the remaining two years of his term. He’s back to work, but the 80-year-old’s health concern smack in the middle of a deadly global pandemic throws into sharp relief a major threat looming over the fragile Senate Democratic majority.

Six senators — five Democrats and an Independent who caucuses with them — are over age 70 and also represent states with a Republican governor who would have the power to appoint a temporary replacement in the event one of them is incapacitated or has to step down. 

If any one of them were to leave the Senate within the next two years because of a retirement, health issues or other reasons, the Democrats could lose their control of the chamber and doom Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

Concern about the advanced age of powerful senators is not new. It’s something Capitol Hill reporters have seen up close as they regularly interact with lawmakers who have served in Washington for decades, sometimes until the end of their lives. 

But concerns over the Democrats’ ability to accomplish the agenda items that their increasingly young and diverse base commands has cast new light on an aging Senate that, like the rest of the world, is more susceptible to the detrimental and deadly health effects of COVID-19. 

“The idea that control of the United States Senate is dependent on the medical care of a couple of very well-intentioned and highly capable senior citizens, that is not the way the government should function,” said Amanda Litman, a former Hillary Clinton 2016 staffer and now the co-founder of Run for Something, a political group that trains and supports young people to run for office.  

“It’s a hard conversation to have in a public space,” added Litman, sizing up the challenge when so many powerful fundraisers and party supporters are also older people. “It is a gerontocracy to the very core.”

Spokespeople for the six senators and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

An inconvenient map

Senator Joe Manchin in February 2020.Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Leahy’s Vermont counterpart, 79-year-old Independent Bernie Sanders, actually did have a heart attack in October 2019 in the midst of his presidential campaign. Both senators represent Vermont, whose governor, Phil Scott, is a Republican, albeit a moderate one. Last year, Scott said he would appoint another Independent, potentially left-leaning, amid reports Biden was considering Sanders for his Cabinet. But that could still leave Senate control uncertain.

Elizabeth Warren, 71, and Ed Markey 74, hail from Massachusetts, where Republican Charlie Baker runs the executive. 

Both Vermont and Massachusetts allow governors to name temporary replacements until a vacancy is filled by a special election. But special elections have a way of upending partisan expectations.

In 2010, Republican Scott Brown shocked the country when he won a special election to fill the late Democrat Ted Kennedy’s seat in deep-blue Massachusetts. Brown’s win left Democrats one vote shy of a 60-vote supermajority that had allowed them for a brief period to move bills along party lines and without concern of a GOP-led filibuster.

Meanwhile, Joe Manchin, the Senate’s current It Boy, is 73, and comes from West Virginia, a majority Democratic state during the last century that has seen its politics shift gradually to the right. The governor there now is Republican Jim Justice, a former Democrat who announced he was switching party affiliation during a 2017 event with then-President Donald Trump. 

And don’t forget 74-year-old Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, whose voters elevated Republican Chris Sununuu to the governor’s mansion in 2017. Both states allow the governor to appoint a replacement to the Senate until the ex-incumbent’s term has expired. (Maryland also has 77-year-old Democrat Ben Cardin, but Republican governor Larry Hogan under state law would have to name a replacement from the same party as Cardin if he left office early.)

This is not an abstract concern

Senator Jeanne Shaheen celebrates after winning re-election in 2020.AP Photo/Charles Krupa

While these senators have not recently disclosed any plans or conditions that would render them incapable of finishing their terms, matters of illness or death is not an abstract concern for the Senate.

Senators have been dying in office since the birth of the chamber in 1789. A total of 301 senators have passed away before finishing their terms. The first was William Grayson, who died in 1790. The last one, Republican John McCain, was 80 when he announced he had an aggressive form of brain cancer that ultimately took his life in 2018. His home state of Arizona ultimately elected a Democrat to replace him.

Illness and injury have ended other careers. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid retired in 2017 after a serious accident when he was 75 that involved an exercise band and a bad fall.

‘You never know what tomorrow will bring’

With the delicate balancing act in the Senate, several other members of the Senate could send things sideways for their party if they couldn’t finish out their term.

In all, nine Republican senators represent states with a Democratic governor who’d be positioned to replace them with someone from the opposing party. That group includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, at 78, and  six more GOP senators in their 60s.

There are also several Democrats younger than 70 who come from states where a Republican executive could replace them That group includes Sen. John Tester of Montana (age 65), Sherrod Brown of Ohio (age 68), and both new senators from Georgia (Ralph Warnock is 55 and Jon Ossoff is 33).

North Carolina and Arizona also have governors of the opposite party as their senators, but state laws for both require their governors to appoint a senator from the same party as any vacating incumbent.

Among the 70+ crowd of Democrats, Leahy, Sanders, Manchin, Warren, Markey and Shaheen have not announced any intention to leave before their term ends or signaled that they would need to step down.

But Democrats acknowledge there’s zero room for error or early exits as their party navigates the Senate’s perfectly divided yet choppy waters.

“Politics is not for the faint of heart, and you never know what tomorrow will bring,” former Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who announced her retirement in 2015 at the age of 74, told Insider in a phone interview. “Is life tenuous? Yes. Is power tenuous? Yes. It’s all tenuous, so what is the answer? Do what you can when you can!”

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