Will This Lawmaker Be the First Incumbent to Lose This Primary Season?

Texan Ralph Hall has been clinging to his seat for a long time, but Tuesday’s election might mark the end.

Ralph Hall
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
May 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.”

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