The votes of millennials and Gen. Z formed a firewall against the Republican “red tide” predicted last November. Now, they’ve possibly launched a “blue wave” as evidenced by election of a liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court justice last week.
The victory by Judge-elect Janet Protasiewicz has all-but-guaranteed that an 1849 anti-abortion law will get thrown out, and that America’s most gerrymandered legislative and congressional district boundaries will get redrawn. As well, the election, which drew 1.8 million votes, has national ramifications.
The victory came on a day when thousands of young people demonstrated nationally, many converging on the Tennessee state capitol, demanding action on an epidemic of gun violence in schools. The protests came in the wake of six killings at a Nashville school, with three nine-year-olds among the victims.
Ex-Gov. Scott Walker, architect of the GOP’s dominance in Wisconsin, warned in a Tweet: “Younger voters may be behind the stinging loss for conservatives in Wisconsin this week. In [last] November, 18 to 29 year-old voters went with the radical candidate by 40 points. Digital ads, student coalitions. None of these will do it. We have to undo years of liberal indoctrination.”
David Hogg, survivor of the Marjorie Stone Douglas High School massacre in Florida, shot back: “It’s not indoctrination – it’s their lived experience of fearing for their lives . . . What you mean [is] the things that we’ve been saying since the Parkland shooting in 2018, that we’re going to turn out and vote, actually has been happening.”
Just 27 percent of eligible under-30 voters cast ballots in last year’s mid-term elections. Still, that represented a big increase over all pre-2018 elections. The youth vote went Democratic over Republican by 28 percent, sufficient to largely cancel out a 12-point Republican advantage among those over 65.
The youth turnout in Washington was about 10 points higher than the national average. Voting here is encouraged by drop boxes on campuses and same-day registration. The results: Eight Republican legislative challengers in swing districts went down to defeat. Not a single incumbent Democratic legislator lost his or her seat. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray was targeted but won reelection with more than 57 percent of the vote.
In a warning delivered by right-thinking Fox News pundit Jesse Watters, “The fact that these youth voters are coming in so strong in an off year is very concerning.” For him, it ought to be concerning. Young voters helped elect and reelect Democratic senators in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Nevada – all races where Republican pollsters had put their candidates in the lead.
“If you look at a lot of these very close races where Democrats were able to eke out a win, a lot of it was because of Gen. Z and millennials: Here’s the thing — half of us are not even old enough to vote yet, and the youngest Gen. Z-ers are 13 right now,” U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, 26, our first Gen. Z congressman, said in an interview after the election.
The Wisconsin election was even more striking. “In Dane County [Madison] more votes cast than more populous Milwaukee County,” said conservative commentator Bill Kristol. Sure enough, 240,376 people voted in Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin, compared to 233,588 in Milwaukee County. Dane County voted 82 percent for Protasiewicz.
Recent returns have led David Hogg, a fierce critic of Florida’s Republican rulers, to predict: “The Gen. Z is going to obliterate the GOP in 2024.”
But not so fast. Similar predictions have been made before. In his 1970 bestseller The Greening of America, law professor Charles Reich predicted youth would lead a “revolution of the new generation” that would lead to a kinder, gentler America. A decade later, however, Ronald Reagan was elected President. The religious right gained influence. Conservative Supreme Court justices were named and began to curtail liberal rulings of the 1960s. The Republican Party became, for a time, the party of youth and vigor.
Today, 52 years after 18-year-olds were given the vote, we have a President, Senate Republican leader, and recent House Speaker all in their 80s. Sen. Charles Grassley, 88, first elected in 1980, recently won a new term. Sen. Diane Feinstein is 89, oldest-ever senator from California, and has outlived two husbands. Ex-President Donald Trump, 74, is seeking a return to the White House.
But the Trump presidency, plus a polarized and paralyzed political system, may start to produce results predicted a half-century ago. In words of ex-Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele: “Gen. Z is already bringing an entirely different game . . . the political class in both parties have no clue what to do with them.”
A trio of issues have resonated among young voters – abortion, gun safety, and climate change. All have contributed to a sense of urgency. The best demonstration of this urgency, lately, is in Tennessee. After the Nashville school shootings, thousands of young people converged on the state capitol. A Republican-run legislature refused to take up any gun legislation. Two young African American legislators were expelled for “violating decorum” by joining a house floor protest. Students staged a “die-in” in a capital corridor.
The Republicans seem particularly tone deaf. Legislators in Florida are taking up a bill, backed by Gov. DeSantis, that would make abortion illegal after six weeks. North Carolina legislators are in the process of loosening gun laws. Idaho has just enacted an “Abortion Trafficking” law making it illegal to transport a pregnant minor across state lines to end a pregnancy, without parental consent, or within Idaho to obtain an abortion pill.
The GOP in Pennsylvania last year nominated a fierce abortion opponent and election denier, State Sen. Doug Mastriano, for governor. He was pitted against Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a defender of abortion rights and partner of Washington AG Bob Ferguson in lawsuits that blocked Trump Administration efforts to roll back environmental and consumer laws.
Shapiro won in a landslide, carrying the 18-29 vote by 44 points over Mastriano. Daughter Sophia Shapiro recently reflected on the result: “The first thing he said on election night when we heard the results, he turned to me and said, ‘Gen. Z showed up.’” The Democrats also flipped a Senate seat in the Keystone State with John Fetterman’s victory.
One reaction in red states has been to make it more difficult to vote. Texas requires “acceptable forms of photo ID.” Lone Star Republican lawmakers have deemed a driver’s license or military identification card as acceptable. Not acceptable — student identification cards. Nor can a student ID be used to register in Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Similar legislation in Montana was recently overturned in court, with challengers represented by Seattle’s Perkins Coie law firm.
“The fascist right wing understands that time is not on their side because this generation is the most progressive in the history of our country,” Frost said recently. He is former executive director of March for Our Lives, a gun-control campaign born out of the 2018 Parkland shootings in which 17 young people were killed.
A half-century ago, in this region, young reformers came from both parties. A GOP challenger in his 30s, Chris Bayley, took out longtime King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll. A trio of young Republicans — Bruce Chapman, John Miller, and Tim Hill – were instrumental in reforming what had been a musty, crusty Seattle City Council. Young adults of both parties were the nucleus of Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC). The “Seattle 10,” reformers elected to the Legislature in 1970, were a bipartisan bunch.
Of course, that was long ago. The Republican Party now is getting older while recent trends, starting with Obama’s election in 2008, show younger voters trending left and voting for progressives. The Democratic Party’s leadership is being pushed, witness recent turnover by its aging leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Will Joe Biden be pressured to stand aside? Probably not. Even so, the millennials and Gen. Z are impatient. Their message: Move on over or we’ll move on over you.