Ballots Over Memes: Can These Millennials Defy The Odds With A Successful Run For Congress In November?

"Democracy is not a noun. It is a verb."

33-year-old Steven Specht always knew that he was going into politics. However, the former United States Air Force veteran believed that it would happen later on his life. But when his congressman, Republican Jeff Miller of Florida's 1st District, announced that he would not seek reelection in 2016, Specht knew that this was his chance to fulfill his political ambitions.

"If not for this unique opportunity, I would have waited until my wife was no longer in the military," Specht told A Plus. "It's something that she and I knew that I had to do. And if I put it off, I would always be hating myself for not taking action when the time was right."

He will face 34-year-old Republican Matt Gaetz in the general election, which means that the 1st District of Florida will elect a millennial as their congressional representative.

Gaetz and Specht are among a handful of millennials (or adults under the age of 35) who are running for Congress in 2016. If elected, these newcomers would join the growing millennial contingency of representatives on Capitol Hill, including 35-year-old Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), 33-year-old Patrick Murphy (D-FL) and 32-year-old Elise Stefanik (R-NY).

The U.S. Senate could also welcome its first millennial in 2016. If 30-year-old Misty Snow defeats Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), she would be the youngest member of the U.S. Senate and the first openly transgender person in Senate history.

Proving That Their Generation Deserves This

Chris Fedalei knows what it's like to have people question his political qualifications. The 26-year-old running as a Democrat in South Carolina's 4th District is the nation's youngest congressional candidate for the 2016 general election.

"I'm not just some kid who woke up and decided to do this," Fedalei told A Plus. "I'm a very serious and capable candidate. We have a very serious message. We have an organization. We have the ground game necessary if we're ever going to change how this district is represented."

Fedalei believes that a Congress with millennials in it would be more functional, more practical and more willing to negotiate on issues than the current body of representatives.

"I think that we are much more informed and passionate than any other generation in the past," he told A Plus. "We grew up with the Internet. We grew up with incredible access to information. I think it's very exciting to see us come into the political playing field and say, 'We're a force to be reckoned with. We deserve respect and we deserve to have a voice.'"

Echoing that same positive sentiment is Peter Jacob, a Democrat running for Congress in New Jersey's 7th District. The 31-year-old social worker strongly believes that millennials are more than capable of developing the ideas to combat the greatest challenges of our time.

"The 21st century challenges require those 21st century solutions," Jacob said in a live Facebook interview with A Plus. "I think we could be the generation to ensure the American dream is strong and alive."

Jacob ran unopposed in the primary before becoming the Democratic nominee in his district. While there were lots of millennials who threw their hats into the ring in other districts, many of them did not survive the primary election.

Among the millennials who lost in the primary included 25-year-old Erin Schrode in California's 2nd District, and 25-year-old Alex Law in New Jersey's 1st District. Both candidates did not have the support of the Democratic establishment and were defeated by incumbent candidates.

An Uphill Battle

But in order to get to Congress, millennials who received party support would need to accomplish the difficult task of defeating an incumbent. Millennials, like other newcomer candidates, have three major obstacles to overcome:

  • Incumbents generally have more name recognition and a history of solid public relations within their district.
  • Incumbents almost always have an inherent fundraising advantage.
  • Incumbents usually have a geographic advantage with congressional districts that are gerrymandered to give the majority party a victory.

As a result of these obstacles, nearly 96 percent of incumbents win re-election every year. In 2016, The Cook Political Report considers only 17 of the 435 seats to be true toss-ups. None of those races involve a millennial candidate.

Recognizing the unlikely odds of winning, the Democratic and Republican parties tend to consolidate their campaign funds mostly towards candidates who have a chance to win. This leaves many congressional candidates, including the millennials, with little to no support from the national party.

In the case of Specht, The Cook Political Report projects his Republican opponent to win by 22 points. As of August, Specht has raised only a few thousand dollars compared to his opponent Gaetz, whose campaign boasts hundreds of thousands of dollars from Republicans and his own personal funds.

"To be frank, the state [Democratic] party and the national [Democratic] party have not given me much of anything," Specht told A Plus. "They feel like this district has no chance whatsoever. I'm sorry to say that they have not helped me at all."

Specht credits his friends and district-wide support from local Democratic organizations for providing the limited funds that his campaign is surviving on. He says that he is also running on a moderate platform to attract independent and Republican voters in his conservative district.

Congressional candidate Steven Specht.
Congressional candidate Steven Specht. Steven Specht for Congress.

In South Carolina, Fedalei said that he knew that his campaign was going to be "the underdogs financially" this year. In terms of fundraising, he is trailing his Republican opponent — Congressman Trey Gowdy — by hundreds of thousands of dollars as of the latest FEC filings.

After Little House on the Prairie actress Melissa Gilbert dropped out of the race in Michigan's 8th District, Democrats recruited 29-year-old Suzanna Shkreli to replace her. However, Shkreli is also far behind her Republican opponent's fundraising totals.

In California, 28-year-old Republican Justin Fareed is looking to win the 28th District after Lois Capps, a Democrat, announced that she is retiring. However, unlike other millennials, Fareed has been able to fundraise over $1 million in his bid to go to Congress.

The Impact All Millennials Can Have In 2016

Fedalei told A Plus that millennials could have a positive effect on the election by signing up and volunteering to help candidates running for Congress. He noted that volunteers are the backbone of any great campaign.

During his Facebook Live interview with A Plus, Jacob suggested that millennials can get involved with their local political organizations.

"Democracy is not a noun," Jacob said. "It is a verb."

However, there's an even simpler way for millennials to impact the election — vote. In 2016, as many millennials will be eligible to vote as baby boomers will be. However, it will only matter if millennials can defy expectations by actually showing up to the polls on Election Day.

"Don't confirm all the prejudices against our generation by not voting," Specht said. "If you're a millennial and you choose not to vote because of some sort of protest against the political process, then I'm afraid you're acting as selfish and entitled as everyone accuses our generation of being."

Ballots Over Memes is a new A Plus original series profiling millennials and their drive to be involved in the 2016 election.