Our elected officials are incredibly important. Ideally, they serve to voice, advocate for and represent our values and needs. Becoming a member of Congress, especially a senator, can feel far-fetched and out of reach for those of us who haven't been poised for the political sphere since becoming class president in grade school. In reality, though, there are only a few mandated requirements for becoming a senator. There has been a push in recent years for people from diverse backgrounds, fields of experience and identity groups to run, and if you feel as though you have strong leadership qualities and a clear vision, you might consider pursuing the office.
Having representatives that literally represent us (in terms of gender, race, age, class) is an integral part of having just and comprehensive legislative body governing us. Accordingly, changing our historically (and currently) majority-white, male, cis, straight legislatures has been a central goal of grassroots organizations dedicated to instigating progress. And as we saw in the 2018 midterm elections, these efforts are paying off. Having more women, particularly women of color, serving in Congress is an amazing signal of progress. If you're a woman or nonbinary person considering becoming a senator, chances are we need you there. Here's how and where you can start.
What is required to become a senator? As with most government positions, there are some basic requirements every aspiring senator must meet. The U.S. Constitution outlines three mandatory qualifications:
- Age: You must be at least 30 years old prior to being sworn into office.
- Residency: You must live in the state you are running to represent.
- Citizenship: You must be a U.S. citizen, and you must have been so for at least nine years.
5 steps to become a senator.
Aside from the three main qualifications, there is no real formula for would-be senators to follow to get elected. In part due to the fact that senators are elected by people, and the communities that elect them vary, senators often come from diverse backgrounds. However, there are definitely some paths that have yielded more success than others.
No matter your background or field of work, though, there are some steps you can take to set yourself up for office.
1. Educate yourself on the issues.
In terms of formal education, there are no requirements for senators. However, many have college degrees, as well as a postgraduate education in political science, law, business or international relations. As of 2016, 20% of our senate was made up of bankers and businessmen, and almost 40% were lawyers, though this number has been declining over the years. If you're considering a career path as a senator at a point early on in your education or career, choosing one of these fields of study might be an advantage, but it is certainly not necessary.
What's most important for a senator, in terms of education, is being knowledgeable about the issues, our system of government and the process by which laws are made. People want to be represented by someone who understands their needs and values and how to advocate for those within our Congress. If there's a specific issue you are knowledgeable about — say you're a gun control activist who ran a nonprofit for many years — and your prospective constituents care about that issue, you'll likely have an advantage, even if you didn't go to law school.
2. Get involved within your community.
Hardly anyone starts their career in public office as a senator. The Constitution states merely that you have to be living in the state you are running in, but you be a much stronger candidate if you are not only a resident but an integral member and leader within your community. For many senators, this means starting by running for smaller public offices — city council or other local leadership positions — and moving their way up to the state Senate or governor's office. This way, you will be knowledgeable about government procedure and develop the leadership skills and track record that people will want to elect.
3. Use resources available to you.
She Should Run and VoteRunLead are two incredible organizations dedicated to helping women run for public office. From training programs to resources that help with campaign preparation and networking within your community, organizations like these exist to lift women who want to run up and make running for public office accessible to passionate people who want to make a real a difference.
4. Build a campaign.
Create a platform of strong ideas with clear values, positions and plans to carry them out. Convene a campaign team that believes in your platform and will be dedicated to helping you win. Decide what your fundraising strategies will be, whether you are running a grassroots campaign or one that will take money from bigger corporations. Be clear on where you stand an all issues before you go public, and be prepared to defend your views.
5. Deal with the logistics.
Before you can launch your campaign, you must choose a party to run within, file your candidacy with the secretary of state in your state, and collect a certain number of signatures from registered voters in your party in order to get on the ballot. These numbers vary by state, so look up your state's specific requirements to make sure you are prepared.
The Senate is the upper chamber of our country's legislature, complemented by the House of Representatives. Members of both chambers serve to represent the interests of their constituents — the citizens who elected them — and draft, propose, and pass laws according to their needs and values.
Each state elects two senators to represent them at the federal level. Senate seats are extremely important and highly competitive across party lines; having a majority in the Senate gives a party an advantage when it comes to passing, and blocking, legislation and certain decisions and appointments. Senators serve six-year terms, with a third of the Senate coming up for re-election every two years. Besides representing and serving their constituents, their main job responsibilities include serving as a liaison between their state and the country's legislative proceedings, serving on specialized committees and voting for or against new legislation.
Our senators are supposed to be our voices in government. Good senators are engaged with and available to their constituents and involved with events and issues within their state. They communicate with the American people about political issues at hand and speak out in favor of justice, due process and upholding the law. Senators are integral to our system of checks and balances and have a strong influence over the kind of government we promote and uphold.
• How much does a senator make a year?
Senators earn $174,000 per year as a base salary income. Minority and majority leaders, as well as a couple of other senior-level positions, earn closer to $200,000 per year.
• How long does it take to become a senator?
It depends. In terms of candidacy, most people start building their campaigns pretty early, up to about two years before election day, but they often plan to run many months or even years earlier. Becoming a senator is a long game — the actual process of running doesn't take a long time, but the building of a resume that will set you up for success takes time and effort. If you hold public offices before running — a common path — you're looking at at least one term of service before heading to the Senate, upwards of four years.
• What are the qualifications to run for Congress?
Senators must be 30 years old at the time of the election, live in their state, and be a citizen of the U.S. for at least nine years. Requirements for the House of Representatives are similar but a little more lenient: candidates must be at least 25 years old, have been a citizen of the U.S. for seven years or more and be a resident of their state, not necessarily in the district in which they are running (though most are).
About the Career Expert:
Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.