Elected: 1980, 17th term.
Born: May 3, 1923, Fate, TX
Home: Rockwall, TX
Education: U. of TX, TX Christian U., S. Methodist U., LL.B. 1951
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1951-80; Pres. & CEO, TX Aluminum Corp., 1967-68; Spec. cnsl., Howmet Corp., 1970-74.
Family: Widower , 3 children ; 5 grandchildren
Republican Ralph Hall, who was born in 1923 and first elected in 1980, became the oldest member ever to serve in the House in December 2012. After years of fending off questions about whether he was too old to continue serving effectively, he lost a May 2014 runoff election to a well-funded challenger who surmounted Hall's collection of endorsements from influential GOP colleagues.
Hall grew up in Rockwall County, served in the Navy during World War II as a lieutenant and aircraft carrier pilot, and had a 30-year career in local politics and business before coming to Washington. He got his law degree from Southern Methodist University, was a county judge in the 1950s, and from 1962 to 1972, served in the Texas Senate. In 1980, he was elected to the House as a Democrat.
His evolution to the Republican Party was a long time in gestation. He supported just about everything in the GOP’s Contract with America policy agenda in 1995 and was one of only five House Democrats who voted to impeach President Bill Clinton. He voted for Bush administration policies on taxes, trade, and foreign policy. (But Hall is not a pure free marketer; he voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement.) During the 2002 campaign, he promised to vote for Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert if his vote decided which party would control the House. And in January 2003, he voted “present” rather than vote for liberal Democrat Nancy Pelosi for speaker, because, he said, “she just don’t think like we do.”
Republicans restlessly waited for years for Hall to join them. When he failed to switch after the 2001 redistricting, local and national Republicans expressed interest in challenging Hall. But they backed off after he met with President George W. Bush at the White House and the president strongly opposed a challenge. In March 2003, Hall was the only Democrat to vote for the Republican budget, which barely passed. The 2003 redistricting finally convinced Hall to change parties. With Republican candidates lined up to run against him, he switched parties on January 2, 2004, the final day for filing. He said that his Democratic Party affiliation was limiting his ability to get appropriations for his district. Remarkably, no one on either side stayed angry with the likeable, story-telling Texan for long. “He can tell you a hundred different stories,” fellow Texas Republican Pete Sessions told The Dallas Morning News, adding that some were clean enough to put in a family newspaper.
When he joined their side, Republicans rewarded Hall with the chairmanship of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Hall helped to enact the energy bill of 2005 and later fought Democratic proposals to raise taxes on oil companies. When Republicans lost the majority in 2007, Hall became the ranking Republican of a full committee, the Science and Technology Committee. He assumed the Science chairmanship in 2011, beating back a challenge from the more confrontational Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. (When asked why he should get the job over his much younger colleague, Hall told a reporter: “I’m in better shape than he’s in.”)
Hall is the affable conservative dean of the Texas delegation in Congress. He is a strong champion of NASA’s International Space Station, which is controlled from Houston, though he is less enthusiastic about the agency’s climate change research and held hearings on the sharply partisan disputes over climate science. He abdicated the chairmanship in January 2013 because of GOP-imposed term limits. The following month, he became the last member of the Texas delegation to get a Twitter account.
For many years, party-switching played well for Hall at home. With support from Bush and then-Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Hall won 77% against two opponents in the 2004 Republican primary and went on to win in the general, 68%-30%, his biggest victory in more than a decade. He won subsequent elections with more than 60% of the vote and held off primary challenges in 2010 and 2012. To prove he was still up to the rigors of serving in Congress, Hall in May 2012 did a tandem skydive from an airplane.
But in 2014, Hall drew a strong primary opponent in John Ratcliffe, a former mayor of Heath who later became U.S. attorney. Ratcliffe once held a fundraiser for Hall at his home, but eventually grew tired of waiting for Hall to retire. Instead of directly attacking the well-regarded Hall, he spent $400,000 of his own money before the primary on advertisements calling for change in Washington. He succeeded in holding Hall to 45 percent in the March primary, below the 50-percent figure needed to avoid a runoff (Ratcliffe took 29 percent).
Ratcliffe solicited the backing of national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund while pouring another $175,000 into the runoff. Hall, meanwhile, tried to respond with endorsements from higher-profile lawmakers such as Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Rep. Ron Paul while approaching other colleagues for fundraising help. He toppled Hall with 53 percent of the vote, making Hall 2014's first incumbent primary casualty.