When Christina Haswood, 26, was on the cusp of deciding to run for the Kansas House of Representatives, she decided to reach out to community leaders in the Lawrence area to see if they would support her.
But in the back of her mind, she was thinking along the lines of, "Wait a minute. Why am I doing this, as a young person just out of school?"
"Especially in the beginning of my campaign, when the self doubt and the impostor syndrome was huge," she said.
Now, Haswood has won her primary and is running unopposed this coming November. In other words, she’ll be the youngest sitting legislator in Topeka next year — unless the other, younger candidates win their races, too.
As a crop of young Kansans run for state office, many of the candidates and their advocates are hoping that with an increase in youth participation, there will be more young folks in the Capitol next session — and along the way, some districts flipped, as well.
According to Yes We Kansas, a political action committee supporting young Democratic state candidates, the average age of a member in the Kansas Legislature is 61.
More than half are 60 or older, according to the PAC’s website, while just eight members are 35 years old or younger.
"Our Legislature does tilt quite substantially towards older people, as is often the case with part-time, low-pay Legislatures around the country," said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political science professor. "It's not a job that is easy to be able to afford to do when you are at the start or even the prime of your work life."
Despite those barriers, activists from both parties say they’re sensing an increase of younger people running for state office.
Yes We Kansas is currently focused on Johnson County, where most of the young Democrats are running for seats. Prior to the 2018 election, Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, was the only Democrat under the age of 35 from the county, said Helena Buchmann, the PAC’s chair.
Two more young Democrats joined Parker after that election, and Buchmann hopes that trend will continue this time, with at least three new young Dems running to represent the county.
Parker, who’s involved with the Kansas Young Democrats, also feels the same.
"It does seem there are more young people running," he said. "There's sort of an extra energy in a bigger crowd of younger people running this cycle."
Dalton Glasscock, chairman of the Kansas Young Republicans, said he’s been engaged with Kansas politics since he was 15. This time is different, he also said.
"I would say I’ve seen more," he said. "I would say this year more than most I see young people running."
Glasscock noted that young people running in Kansas is nothing new, though. Miller echoed that point, saying there’s always been a handful of young folks running every election cycle.
"I don't think that necessarily we have more of them running this year," he said. "But maybe we have more who are in races that are thought to be more competitive."
In short, instead of facing the long odds against a deeply favored incumbent, there’s a chance some of these young candidates can actually win.
Running as a young person
One of these more competitive districts is Kansas House District 72, where races have been tight since 2016. In fact, incumbent Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, won by only 88 votes in the last election, beating out Steven Kelly, a retired hospital executive.
This time, the Republicans are sending in a 23-year-old instead: Newton native Avery Anderson, who just graduated college in December and entered the election fresh off an internship with U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, of Kansas.
"I'd love to get involved and run for office someday, if that was 30 (years old), 35 or 40, someday down the road," he said. "I definitely did not plan on running this cycle at all."
But when Kelly announced he wasn’t running again, Anderson said he didn’t think the candidates vying for the GOP nomination would beat Hodge. So he decided to take a shot.
Anderson won the primary, 50 votes ahead of his nearest competitor in a field of four candidates. It was tough, he said.
"It was me and my dad who ran my primary," he said. "We did not have much of a team. It was a small group, and I had a couple friends that their voices, I brought their voices in, as well. Running as a young person, you don't quite have the network that you would if you were older."
But on the flip side, without that network, the effort became more grassroots, he said. He made a lot of phone calls and sent out many letters asking for funds. More importantly, with no job tying him down nine to five besides helping out in a family business, he could go out more and door knock.
"I think knocking doors is the most important thing in local elections and putting your face in front of as many people as possible. I think that's what pulled me across the finish line," Anderson said.
Like Anderson, many other young candidates said the lack of network and connections was a challenge. Buchmann said that’s why her PAC exists, especially when it comes to financing.
"Our contribution limits mean that you do have to have a pretty broad network of people contributing to your campaign if you want to run a serious one," she said.
Cole Fine, 22, is a Democrat running for Kansas House District 15, which has grown more competitive over the years. In 2018, incumbent Rep. John Toplikar, R-Olathe, only beat out his Democratic opponent by 236 votes.
Fine, who graduated from college this spring, said he was either going to law school or running for office. But the pandemic hit, and the idea of taking classes on computers all day didn’t sit well. So he ran.
He’s faced some skepticism about his age, he said, but he hopes his positions on issues can speak for themselves. He said there have been little benefits to being young here and there, such as with technology.
Haswood said her engagement on social media and with youth played a role in securing her win in the primary.
"I think branching out my campaign to TikTok brought a lot of excitement to my campaign. And we had a couple videos go viral, as well," she said. "But I think that also served an inspiration to the younger people, and even one of my endorsements, the Sunrise Movement of Lawrence, Kansas, they did several phone banks for me and I think that was one of the biggest parts of my success."
For Fine and Anderson, there’s the potential narrative of a young, fresh face unseating an older, established opponent of the other party, symbolic of voters wanting to turn a new page.
"I hope that when they see me, they see a fresh and energetic perspective. And, yeah, just a new generation in Topeka," Anderson said. "I really believe that's what not only this district, but the state needs, as well."
Fine, on the other hand, downplayed the importance of his age.
"From day one I wanted to keep age out of it. I just run on my positions and I don't try to harness my youth as an advantage, and I don't try to let people use it against me as a disadvantage. I think it's just an objective item," he said.
One candidate who has lived that narrative and is trumpeting it — 19-year-old Aaron Coleman, who admitted to harassing and blackmailing women and is facing allegations of abuse. A Democrat running in Kansas House District 37, he won the primary against Rep. Stan Frownfelter, D-Kansas City, who is staging a write-in campaign.
Coleman, whom other young candidates have distanced themselves from, told The Topeka Capital-Journal at a march in Emporia that his primary victory was a sign of what could come.
"I’m just a 19-year-old dishwasher who scrubs dishes on the weekends. So if I can unseat [an] entrenched incumbent at 19 years old, that means these incumbents who've been around for years are just .... I think the youth are ready to take over. That starts with the youth running for office," Coleman said.
What if they win?
Many young candidates said their intentions are to bring fresh perspectives to the Legislature and more conversations on youth-related interests. That includes 26-year-old Rashard Young, a Republican running in Kansas House District 16.
"I definitely think, based on the relationships I've already created down in Topeka, that I've got a lot of amazing folks across party lines that are going to be open to hearing some of the issues I bring forth," he said.
The big problem he hopes to address is the student debt crisis, which he says is "really punishing young people" in Kansas and elsewhere.
Even Fine brought up the fact that his youth will give him better insight on issues related to education and mental health that could be addressed in the Capitol.
"I know what it's like to be in a modern classroom and know what it's like to to see the ins and outs of the public school system, and modern schooling is so different than what it has been," he said.
Others, including Haswood and Anderson, emphasized that they will bring young people to the table and make it a point to hear them out when in office.
But Miller, the political science professor, doesn’t think significant change will come with a larger group of young politicians in the Statehouse.
"When we've seen young people in our Legislature before in Kansas ... they really act the same as legislators in many ways, if you look at how they vote, what kinds of legislation they sponsor," said Miller.
Parker, who joined the Legislature in 2017, said when he entered in his early thirties, he didn’t come in with a youth-focused mindset, given the state was dealing with "massive" budget problems from former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts. But as he served more, discussions started happening.
"A couple times a session, they will have legislators under the age of 40 get together and talk about if there are shared priorities, maybe some legislative goals that cross party lines or aren't necessarily tied to any one ideology, but are things that younger legislators can rally around and support," he said.
Impact or not, the representation aspect of their campaigns is just as important, many said.
While younger generations tend to lean liberal, according to Miller and others, Young believes young Republican candidates like himself are part of a "rebranding" of the GOP. It’s less about party, he said, but more about values.
"I hope that I can bring a fresh perspective as a young African-American Republican to folks to say, ’Hey, you don't have to do what culture tells you to do. You don't have to follow just what your peers are following. It's OK to step out and be an independent thinker and go after the things that you truly stand for,’ " he said.
For Haswood, who will be the third Native American member in the Legislature’s history, representation means everything.
"One of the main reasons why I ran is representation. Hopefully, I've inspired some people across our state and across the country," she said.
When she’s at Topeka, she’ll work to bring more young people into the Statehouse, she said. Haswood wants to create a program for students to perhaps follow her around for a day and be more politically involved in state matters.
"I really think that if we can get younger people involved into the process, they would bring great ideas and great changes of voice," she said.
Capital-Journal reporter Rafael Garcia contributed to this report.