A Division I cross-country runner at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 20-year-old Matt Bennett is competing in a different kind of race this fall.
After winning one of two Democratic nominations for Calvert County commissioner in June, he moved home, cut back on credit hours and put his athletic career on hold to prepare for perhaps his steepest run yet.
“I’m out there every day, talking to as many people as possible,” the junior mathematics major said. “I believe I have a winning message, but it’s about getting my name out there.”
Bennett isn’t the only young person without much, if any, political experience whose name appears on this fall’s ballots. He’s part of a small but growing cohort of candidates younger than 30 running in the general election, an uptick that political experts say could perhaps indicate growing enthusiasm, optimism and engagement in politics among young people, as well as voting-aged adults’ eagerness to embrace change.
In 2014, the last election cycle in Maryland that coincided with a governor’s race, some 16 candidates under 30 ran in general election contests that ranged from Talbot County Council to Baltimore clerk of the circuit court.
This year, at least 26 candidates under 30 — most of them Democrats, but Republicans and Green Party candidates, as well — have advanced to Tuesday’s general election.
“If we would have been having this conversation a year ago, I would’ve pointed to literature about why millennials don’t run for office,” said Stella Rouse, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. “But millennials really abhor the current political system. They see running as a way to potentially make change.”
Over the past several decades, voters have increasingly supported candidates who reject the status quo and promise to shake up politics as usual, said Matthew Mongiello, a professor of American politics at McDaniel College. He said this helps, rather than hurts, young candidates with shorter-than-average resumes.
“It’s a general trend in our politics that favors political outsiders,” he said, citing the elections of President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama. “It’s a trend we’ve been seeing in lots of other offices.”
Compared with 2016, more voters between 18 and 24 years old agree that they can create change if they band together, according to research published this month by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. They are also more likely to attend a march or demonstration, sign a petition, display a sticker or sign supporting a candidate, or follow a candidate or campaign on social media.
Abby Kiesa, a spokeswoman at the Tufts center, said the findings run parallel with research that illustrates young people’s increased skepticism about politics.
“Instead of seeing people be cynical and then disengage, it’s the opposite,” Kiesa said.
Winnie Obike, a 28-year-old mother of two and a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates in Prince George’s County, has seen more attention focused on the momentum of young progressives — especially Democratic women — than that of conservatives.
She said she and her female Republican peers “mumble and rumble and complain” about what they perceive as biases against them. Nevertheless, she said she feels this could be her moment, too.
“As a Republican in a heavily Democratic district, there’s no better time to run than now, because I can brand myself as a Hogan Republican,” Obike said, referring to the state’s popular GOP incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan. “I want people to see me as a Hogan Republican, instead of the other kinds of Republican that are out there.”
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Mongiello said the increase of young progressives running in 2018 follows a trend of hyper-energy found within a party that loses the most power during the previous cycle — in this case, the Democrats.
“The message of change or throw-out-the-bums tends to resonate more strongly with the party that is in opposition,” Mongiello said.
Meanwhile, other younger candidates ran not necessarily with a goal of winning, but to rebel against a system that they consider broken and tilted in favor of older incumbents.
Olivia Romano, 22, a recent Towson University graduate, filed to run in April as a Green Party candidate for the House of Delegates. She said she felt drawn to offer her community another choice on the ballot.
“We have this two-party system, and we can’t function like that. That’s putting [politics] into a black or white area,” said Romano, of Severna Park. “People get carried up with being on a side. I think younger generations are really fed up.”
Romano ended her campaign this summer because of health reasons, but her name will appear on this month’s ballot. She plans to run again someday, and perhaps, ultimately set her sights on the White House.
“It’s still a dream,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you want to be, but that we have the best people running.”