At 91, Ralph Hall is the oldest lawmaker to ever serve in the U.S. House and the last World War II veteran seeking reelection. But by Tuesday night, he might carry another distinction as the first incumbent to lose this primary season.
Not a single member of the Senate or House has lost a primary so far in 2014 despite national polling that underscores the unpopularity of Congress. But in the northeast corner of the Lone Star State, in 18 counties along its borders with Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, from the Dallas suburbs to Texarkana, Hall is in real danger of failing in his bid for an 18th term in Congress.
John Ratcliffe, 48, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and a former mayor of Heath, got tired of waiting for Hall to retire. After standing by as the long-time lawmaker promised in every cycle for the past eight years that this one would be his last, Ratcliffe launched an aggressive campaign to take the job away. And he's unabashedly trying to define the race as a referendum on Hall's age.
"John got tired of waiting for him, waiting in the wings," said Tony Fisk, the Rockwall County GOP chairman.
From the start of his campaign, in an initial field of five GOP primary challengers, Ratcliffe described his candidacy as a "new generation of Republican leadership" and questioned the length of Hall's 34-year tenure. It was a message that would gain some momentum.
When the congressman failed, surprisingly, to gain 50 percent of the vote (46 percent) in the six-way March primary, it was Ratcliffe who secured the second runoff spot with 29 percent of the primary vote. Three of the other challengers then endorsed Ratcliffe, and one backed Hall. Ratcliff also grabbed the endorsement of The Dallas Morning News, which applauded Hall's long service but also said, "There comes a time when new ideas and fresh energy are needed."
And just like that, the tone for the rest of the campaign was set, with Hall's age dominating Ratcliffe's campaign messaging. For instance, Ratcliffe said during a May 22 appearance on MSNBC that Hall's age is something that is a fair issue for voters to consider. He even went as far as to say, "I think it's something that the voters are concerned about."
Hall hasn't helped perceptions by refusing to debate Ratcliffe, argued Walter Casey, a political scientist at Texas A&M University at Texarkana. But Casey cautioned that Ratcliffe might have taken this strategy too far. "It's come off like he is anti-age. It's not just that he's implied that Ralph Hall was too old, but also was that he is not thinking straight — or that voters should worry about that," Casey said.
Indeed, the race has become so dominated by Hall's age that some Texas Republicans are warning against reading any deeper meaning into Tuesday night's results. Fisk said that anyone trying to use this race as a gauge for understanding voters' support of tea-party candidates over the Republican establishment is missing the mark.
It is true that Hall was one of the last so-called Yellow Dog Democrats in Congress, a living vestige of the evolution of Texas politics in the late 20th century. But Hall had a conservative voting record even before he formally switched parties to the GOP in 2003, as a matter of political survival following redistricting in 2001. And he has continually maintained that record.
In addition, both men have backing from various tea-party or conservative politicians and organizations. Ratcliffe has grabbed the endorsements of the Club for Growth and the Madison Project, as well as the Tea Party Express. But Hall is backed by Rep. Michele Bachmann, Rep. Trey Gowdy, former Rep. Ron Paul, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Neither candidate has held an overwhelming advantage in campaign money. Both have raised about $1 million. But Ratcliffe was aided by a $575,300 loan he's given his own campaign. Hall has given his campaign a $130,000 loan.
Some recent public polling has shown double-digit leads for Ratcliffe. But experts in the district see that as deceiving because actual voter turnout is expected to be extremely low — as low as 10 percent of all enrolled district Republicans. And, Casey predicts, "If the Ralph Hall base shows up energized — voters who are 55 and up — Ralph wins."
Hall's campaign declined to comment or provide the House member for an interview.
But in recent days, his campaign decided he needed to address the suggestion that he is too old in a sprightly and spirited commercial.
"When you battle Nancy Pelosi as much as I have, you're bound to get a few wrinkles," jokes Hall in the ad, referring to the House Democratic leader. He points to wrinkles in his face. "And, by gosh," says Hall, "I've got room for a few more wrinkles."