The first Gen Z candidates are running for Congress — and running against compromise As the first few Gen Z candidates navigate runs for Congress, questions remain over how coming of age during intense national political division will shape Gen Z candidates' approach to politics.

The first Gen Z candidates are running for Congress — and running against compromise

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To serve in the United States Congress, you have to be at least 25 years old. And this year, for the first time ever, the youngest candidates running aren't millennials. They're actually part of Generation Z, which Pew Research Center defines as anyone born in between 1997 and 2012. And this new generation is not looking to compromise. NPR's Elena Moore reports.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: If you were born in the late '90s, school shooting drills have been commonplace since you were small. You've grown up witnessing protests over everything from stopping racial violence to fighting climate change. And the first presidential election you were eligible to vote in was 2016. For Maxwell Alejandro Frost, experiences like these are some of the reason Generation Z stands out.

MAXWELL ALEJANDRO FROST: Our generation has been born into a lot of trauma and a lot of civil unrest, and I think because of that, our generation naturally thinks about things in a bit of a different way.

MOORE: Frost is running for Congress in Florida's 10th District, an open and solidly blue seat that contains parts of Orlando. He's been an activist and an organizer for a decade, working for the ACLU and March for Our Lives. And at 25, if elected, he would potentially be the first Gen Z member of Congress. Throughout his life, he can remember inherently political moments like the ones mentioned before.

FROST: Turning on the TV and seeing a bunch of people sleeping outside of Wall Street, talking about something called wealth inequality - right? (laughter) - like, seeing that in elementary school; growing up, learning that 30 minutes away from me a kid that looked like me, who was wearing a hoodie, was murdered for being Black, Trayvon Martin, and seeing the outrage after that; Columbine; Pulse.

MOORE: And Frost isn't the only Gen Z candidate. In the St. Louis suburbs, 25-year-old Ray Reed is vying to oust Republican Ann Wagner from Missouri's 2nd Congressional District. He pushes back against those who say he should start in local politics.

RAY REED: Which is really just political talk for, let's get him in our system. Let's teach him how to play the game our way. And then, if we say he's ready, he can run for a higher office. The real risk is to nominate the same type of Democratic candidates in election after election after election and somehow expect a different result.

MOORE: And while both Reed and Frost are progressives, honing in on issues like curbing gun violence, passing the Green New Deal and canceling student debt, there's no denying that age is a part of their campaigns. Frost again.

FROST: Yes, we march. Yes, we engage in mutual aid. Yes, we engage on social media. And now we're running for office because we believe that we are prepared to be in the rooms, up to be the voice for our communities. And we can do that. And young people should be allowed.

MOORE: This drive makes sense to Amanda Litman, who is the CEO of Run for Something, an organization that supports first-time Democratic candidates running for office. Litman is a millennial.

AMANDA LITMAN: You don't run for office as a 25 year old because it is your next step in your career or it is the thing you've been planning for since you were a kindergartener or a college president. You run because there is a problem that is so fiercely driving you that you can't imagine doing anything else with your time.

MOORE: But this isn't just happening on the left. Karoline Leavitt is a fierce conservative running for Congress in New Hampshire's 1st District, a seat currently held by vulnerable Democrat Chris Pappas. Leavitt turns 25 this summer.

KAROLINE LEAVITT: It's a very one-sided culture that we live in. How do we break through that mold? It's by electing young people to office that can resonate with these voters, have a platform at the national stage that can show them ideas, policies, values that they're not hearing elsewhere at all.

MOORE: Leavitt is already a vetted GOP staffer, working as an assistant press secretary in the Trump administration and as the spokeswoman for New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who's a millennial. Leavitt argues the Democratic progressives have gone too extreme and hopes her campaign will energize young conservatives, even though Gen Z's early voting trends are decidedly liberal.

LEAVITT: So I think some of these more progressive candidates are just a reflection of the system that exists, and it's the exact system I'm trying to fight against.

MOORE: And that fighting attitude is shared by Frost, the progressive running in Florida.

FROST: We come to the negotiating table, not already at the compromise, which is usually what, you know, Democrats tend to do. And I think this is part of the reason why the Republican Party has these long-term plans that a lot of times are coming to fruition.

MOORE: This determination to stand by your values shows a clear deviation from millennials. That's according to Kristen Soltis Anderson, a conservative pollster and strategist and also a millennial.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON: The frame has shifted from, I'm going to bring about that change by being someone who looks for opportunities to work across the aisle, and more, I'm going to disrupt the institutions and systems that are allowing the other side to continue to prevail.

MOORE: But, strategists argue, coming to Washington and disrupting the institution isn't received the same way by Democrats compared to Republicans. While Trump allies like Stefanik have moved up in GOP ranks, millennial trailblazers on the Democratic side remain left out of leadership. And because of this, Anderson says, really, no party has a leg up right now.

ANDERSON: I do not think either party has a dramatic advantage on elevating Generation Z voices in elected office at this moment, and that's despite the fact that Democrats do have an advantage among those voters at the ballot box.

MOORE: So there's still some uncertainty here. But then again, for Gen Zers seeking national office, this is only year one. Elena Moore, NPR News.

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