The Nation’s Youngest Voters Put Their Stamp on the Midterms, with Climate Change Top of Mind

Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 25-year-old community organizer, has become the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress after winning a House seat in Florida’s 10th Congressional District.

The young Democrat’s victory came as his generation was also getting credit for helping to stop a red wave of Republican victories in Tuesday’s national midterm elections.

This historic win in the Orlando-area district will do more than just bring down the average age of a House member, which is currently 58. It will also highlight the importance of two issues credited with motivating Gen Z voters to turn out: gun violence and climate change. 

In an interview with iGen Politics in October, Frost said that the climate crisis is one of the reasons he decided to run for Congress. He spoke about experiencing Hurricane Ian, a monstrous Category 4 storm that slammed into Florida’s southwest coast on Sept. 28, killing more than 100 people in the state. In the morning before the interview, he worked to distribute donated food and supplies to families displaced by the catastrophic storm. 

“We didn’t cause the hurricane but science tells us that we are contributing to these more devastating effects,” he said then. “And so, the cost of not doing anything is far greater than the cost of taking bold action and this is one of the reasons why I decided to run for Congress.” 

In election after election, climate change, or more broadly, the environment, has failed to become a decisive factor in races for Congress or the presidency. But that may be changing as climate change, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, has become nothing less than “a code red for humanity”—and the political dynamics around climate in the 2022 midterms could stand out as a milestone.

Frost represents a generational shift in a national political landscape where a segment of voters is emerging to make climate change a bigger factor, experts said Wednesday.

Exit polling suggests that young voters aged 18 to 29, many of whom likely factored climate change among their top concerns, stood in the breach of a Republican red wave that never materialized. Nationally, about one in eight voters was between 18 and 29, and two-thirds of them voted for the Democrats, according to an NBC News exit poll.

Control of Congress still narrowly hangs in the balance.

But Gen Z voters, born after 1996 and now at least 25 years old, appear to have been among a young adult cohort that saved Democrats from what could have been a much worse outcome, based on historical voting patterns during midterms after a presidential election, and depending on final vote counts, could potentially save Democrats’ congressional majorities.

“We see big vote margins by young voters, especially in really close races, being a difference maker,” said Alberto Medina, who oversees communications for the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. “We think this is emblematic of the different ways that young people are leveraging their political power and civic engagement in recent years,” he said. 

Gen Z Voters Overwhelmingly Backed Democrats 

A quick analysis of exit polling by the Tufts research center found that the nation’s youngest voters,  aged 18 to 29, had a major impact on the 2022 midterms. For example, the center found, they played a key role in races in battleground states:

  • In the Pennsylvania Senate race, the young voters preferred Democrat John Fetterman over Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, 70 percent to 28 percent. Fetterman won by a 4 percent margin. A majority of voters over 45 went for Oz.
  • In the Georgia Senate race, young voters backed Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock over Republican former football star Herschel Walker, 63 percent to 36 percent. With less than 1 percent separating the candidates, the race is headed for a Dec. 6 runoff. A majority of voters over 45 favored Walker.
  • In the Wisconsin governor’s race, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won re-election by a 51 percent to 48 percent margin. Young voters gave Evers huge support: 70 percent compared to 30 percent for Republican challenger Tim Michels. Again, voters over 45 backed the Republican.
  • If incumbent Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, holds his lead in a close race against Republican Blake Masters, he can thank the 76 percent of young voters who backed him, according to the Tuft’s analysis. 
  • In New Hampshire, Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, retained her seat with support from 74 percent of the young people’s vote.

These are all signs, Medina said, that Gen Z “is growing in its political power.”

Young Democratic voters interviewed on Tuesday were feeling empowered.

“It is important for me to vote to ensure that my voice is heard,” said Hailey Lacewell, 18, of North Carolina, and a Howard University student. “A lot of people talk about wanting change but don’t make the effort to make that change. Even if I am just one person or one vote, that one vote counts towards something bigger than what a lot of us, especially Gen Z, think.”

Payton Santillanes, 21, of New Mexico, and an Eastern New Mexico University student, said, “I feel like it’s important to exercise all of our freedoms as Americans, and having a choice in our leadership is a rarity that isn’t granted across the world.”

And Ramiya Shelton, 19, of Maryland, also a Howard University student, said, “The key to change is representation. This was my first year being eligible to vote and, as a Black female, it was of utmost importance to vote representing those who look like me.”

President Joe Biden noticed the young voters’ turnout.

“I especially want to thank the young people of this nation who I’m told–I haven’t seen the numbers —voted in historic numbers again,” he said Wednesday.

Climate Change Is a Partisan Issue

In the United States, climate change has become a partisan issue, with Democrats more favorable to action than Republicans, polls show. That played out this year with Democrats in Congress passing Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate bill in history, on a party line vote. It included an unprecedented $370 billion in federal spending to tackle climate change, much of it through tax credits for developers and producers of clean electricity.

Young voters helped persuade Congress to pass that bill and then in the election, they “helped stop the red wave or the red tsunami,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of NextGen America, which worked to mobilize 9.6 million voters across the country in the midterms.

“We know that climate change is one of the top three issues that young people say they care about,” she said during a press briefing with several other environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club that collectively spend $135 million supporting green candidates.

“Young people inherit the greatest benefits of action, and the greatest consequences of inaction,” she said.

Ramirez said her group was on 245 college campuses on Election Day, encouraging young voters to stay in line to vote. Before that, she said, they spoke with millions of young voters across the country, including 2.1 million young eligible voters that they reached in Pennsylvania. 

Across the country, the group reached young voters through social media, text messages and calls—even communicating with them on dating apps “because,” Ramirez said, “we say there is nothing sexier than talking about the D, which is democracy on dating apps, and getting young people to turn out and save democracy.”

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Frost’s media representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Frost has shown that he doesn’t shy away from addressing people in power via social media. In a tweet on Nov. 2, Frost called out Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer, for “turning a blind eye to corporate greed” and allowing oil and gas companies to take advantage of poor and working-class families at the pump.

From Florida, Frost has seen that the effects of climate disasters are compounded by already existing inequalities of class and race. On his campaign website, he said that he will work to enact bold policies to transition the carbon-dependent economy into a green future as the first Afro-Cuban person in Congress.

Journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who teaches journalism at the University of Florida and whose latest book is The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans, said she’s not surprised that Gen. Z is flexing its political muscles.

“As both a teacher of, and mother to, college students, I can say that Gen Z was on fire to vote in the midterms,” she said. “Here in Florida, young people are especially motivated by threats to LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights and by inaction on climate change and gun violence.”

She said she thinks it was issues like these that helped motivate Florida voters to send the first representative of Gen Z to Congress.

Many of this generation “are distraught about the impacts of warming and how those impacts are worsening inequality here in Florida and around the world,” Barnett said.

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