When Carl Levin was first elected to the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama was a 17-year-old high school senior.
That was more than 34 years ago. Today, of course, not only has that high school boy become President, he has run in his last election. But not only is Carl Levin still in the Senate, he may very well run for a seventh term next year.
And politicians of both parties are anxiously waiting to find out. Democrats, perhaps a little more anxiously than Republicans. Here’s why. If Carl Levin runs, they automatically hold the seat.
Republicans will almost certainly not make much of an effort. Oh, they will deny that indignantly now. But the fact is, the last two times Levin ran, the GOP put token candidates on the ballot, term-limited state legislators to whom they then gave no money.
That’s because Carl Levin has become one of the state’s icons, and to some extent a significant national figure, as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He not only has been senator longer than anyone in the history of our state, he has been in the U.S. Senate longer than most Michiganders have been alive.
Some people probably think his first name is Senator. When he last ran five years ago, he became the first statewide candidate ever to get more than three million votes. He outspent his Republican opponent by almost 30-1, without really trying.
So why wouldn’t he run for office again? The one big negative is this: Carl Levin will be 80 years old before voters go to the polls a year from November. He looks and seems much younger, even if Jon Stewart calls him Grandpa Munster.
But does he want to spend these years on Capitol Hill? By the time his next term would end, he will be 86. How old is too old to serve in Congress? Yes, Strom Thurmond was still in the Senate at age 100. But he had to live in a hospital his last few years.
Yet age really is relative. Last week I had lunch with Avern Cohn, who is still a full-time federal judge at 88. He specializes in long, complex patent cases that may take a year to resolve. He told me he likes these because he always wants to be learning something new. He’s mentally and physically vigorous, and easily walked several blocks to a deli in the harsh January winds.
Republicans have lost 12 of the last 13 U.S. Senate elections in this state, and if Carl Levin does run, they are looking at 13 out of 14. But if he doesn’t run, you will see an enormous upheaval in Michigan politics. Congressmen in both parties are likely to give up their seats to jump into a primary.
Democrats, who want to use their resources for a major effort against Governor Snyder, will suddenly have two major races.
They want to worry about that only slightly less than they wanted President Romney. The Democratic Party strongly believes older Americans should be able to retire with dignity.
But they are hoping and praying that’s a right Carl Levin doesn’t choose to exercise … at least not quite yet.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.