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Gen Z announces itself in midterms with Democratic boost, historic wins

Gen Z candidates, from left, Maxwell Frost, Nabeela Syed and Joe Vogel all won their elections this week. (Thomas Simonetti; Josh Ford; Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post; iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Generation Z voters this year boosted candidates in tight midterm races who acknowledged their political potential and promised to tackle what they care most about, youth activist organizations said.

The result, because of how their priorities aligned with Democrats’, helped them combat a predicted Republican wave.

“Gen Zers are making it clear that they’re voting based on where you are on issues that concern them,” said Andrea Pringle, voter engagement expert and executive director of the organization Registration Nation. “If the Democratic Party is the party that is benefiting, that’s because they are the ones being viewed as somewhat aligned or doing something about it.”

For Gen Z voters, combating climate change is top of mind

About 1 in 8 voters overall were under 30, and more than half supported Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, according to early exit polling and AP VoteCast. But support for Democrats among young voters, while still running well ahead of their support for Republicans, eroded somewhat from the 2018 midterms.

That might be because Gen Z’s allegiance is to issues, not to specific political parties or candidates, said Kenisha Mahajan, a 17-year-old advocate for political and community engagement. Gen Zers are most motivated by candidates who plan to address climate change, gun violence, reproductive rights, racial justice and LGBTQ rights, activists and candidates say. Mahajan cited as an example the defeat of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, who, she said, didn’t appeal to the youth vote.

“Complacency and the bare minimum is not enough,” she said.

Gen Z on voting: 'We're the wrong generation to piss off'

Mahajan isn’t yet old enough to vote. But she has worked with the advocacy organization YVote since her freshman year of high school, educated herself about topics like the school-to-prison pipeline, and taught other young people about political issues through workshops and social media infographics, she said.

Online, Gen Z members confront political and cultural discourse with humor and satire, a response to the “whiplash-inducing” events of their lifetimes, said John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern University.

“This is a generation that’s lived through a huge string of school shootings,” Wihbey noted. “... The rise of Trumpism and authoritarian populism, the clear evidence of human-induced climate change pressing down on us — it’s been a really rough ride for Gen Z folks.”

“These are issues that have been looming for generations without solutions, because corporations have had power over elected officials to stop any progress from happening,” said Michele Weindling, electoral director for the Sunrise Movement, a youth movement centered around climate change.

And so some Gen Z members sought to become elected officials themselves.

Maxwell Alejandro Frost, 25, made history in central Florida on Tuesday as one of the youngest people ever elected to Congress and its first Gen Z member. (Republican Karoline Leavitt, also 25, lost her bid in a New Hampshire swing district to be the first Gen Z congresswoman.)

Frost didn’t have political experience, but he had worked as an activist for the American Civil Liberties Union and March for Our Lives, the gun violence prevention group started by Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivors. He campaigned on ending gun violence and pushing for climate reform.

“I started organizing at 15 because I didn’t want to get shot at my school,” Frost said during his victory speech Tuesday night in Orlando. “People are yearning for bold champions who believe in the bold transformational change that we need.”

Frost’s history-making win came alongside others this week, particularly for Democrats. Wes Moore was elected as Maryland’s first Black governor; Maura Healey, in Massachusetts, and Tina Kotek, in Oregon, became the first openly lesbian women elected governors. And Gen Z voters were instrumental in delivering a win for former organizer Summer Lee, the first Black congresswoman elected in Pennsylvania, Weindling said.

A ‘rainbow wave’ of candidates made history. What’s next for them?

Among other motivators at the polls, “the threats against our democracy are ones that young people really have a stake in, because this is the country that we’re soon going to be inheriting, and it’s in deep trouble,” said 25-year-old Joe Vogel, a Democrat who won a state delegate seat for Maryland’s 17th District.

Vogel proudly identifies as a gay, Latino, Jewish immigrant. His campaign was also centered on ending gun violence, as well as addressing climate change and other problems that affected young people in Annapolis, such as being priced out of housing or the lack of transportation options.

He didn’t accept money from corporate donors, he said, because he didn’t want people to worry that he cared more about corporate interests than those of his constituents. It made some voters more inclined to donate to his campaign, he said.

“We won this campaign because we stayed focused on what really mattered, which was listening to people and really connecting with people,” Vogel said.

From last week: Gen Z voter turnout will show just how influential influencers really are

Nabeela Syed, a Democrat who was elected as Illinois’s first South Asian woman and youngest person to serve in the state legislature, said she knocked on around 15,000 to 20,000 doors to listen to her community members’ concerns.

Older voters gave Syed pats on the back and fist bumps as she came to their doors, she said, and they were touched to know that a young person wanted to hear from them about issues such as property taxes and the prices of prescription drugs. As someone who’s been wearing a hijab since high school, Syed said she also wanted to prioritize safety in schools for young people, from bullying and harassment prevention to “common sense gun reform.”

“It was important for me to make sure that the community that I was born and raised in was being heard,” Syed said.

Over the past year, she documented her campaign efforts on her Instagram page, which now has more than 6,000 followers. Many of her posts are selfies with people she talked to while campaigning door-to-door. Syed said many of her former classmates messaged her to say they were eager to vote for her and pushed their parents to do the same.

“I’m so grateful for all the young people that have been DMing me, that have posted on Instagram with their ‘I voted’ stickers and have tagged me, because some of these folks were my classmates from elementary school, from middle school, people I haven’t talked to in years, but they were so excited,” she said.

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