When Ralph Hall was first elected to the US House of Representatives, nobody had heard of the internet, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office. Now the 91-year-old Texan, who is the oldest-ever serving member of Congress, is in danger of finally losing his seat to a Tea Party conservative a little over half his age.
Hall, who first ran for political office in 1949, faces what may be the toughest electoral challenge of his lengthy career as he bids for what would be his eighteenth and, he has promised, final consecutive term in Congress. His seat is one of several Republican-held districts where establishment GOP candidates are being challenged by Tea Party-backed primary opponents.
During a six-way primary in March, Hall claimed 45 per cent of the vote, but his lack of an overall majority forced him into a runoff against his closest rival, 48-year-old John Ratcliffe. Though Ratcliffe won just 29 per cent of the first vote, the circumstances of the run-off, due to take place today, favour his candidacy. Second rounds of voting tend to suffer from low turnout, and those who do vote are often people seeking a change. There is no Democratic candidate in the district, which means the primary winner will run unopposed at the general election in November.
Hall was born in Fate, Texas in 1923. While working at a local store aged 12, he claims to have sold cigarettes to Bonnie and Clyde. He served as a Navy pilot from 1942 to 1945, and is one of just two Second World War veterans still serving in Congress – and the only one pursuing re-election. A county judge and state senator before he ran for national office, he was first elected to the US Congress as a Democrat in 1980, but in 2004 he switched allegiance to the Republican Party.
His constituency, Texas’s 4th Congressional District, contains a road, an airport, and even a proposed reservoir all named after Hall, who is only the fourth congressman to represent the district since it was created in 1903. Since 1980, he has never been re-elected in a general election with less than 58 per cent of the vote, and, until 2010, he had never won less than 66 per cent of the vote in any primary. This is the first primary run-off of his congressional career.
Ratcliffe, a former US attorney, has reportedly used modern voter-targeting analytics to draw out potential supporters, while Hall has stuck to direct mailing and old-fashioned one-to-one interactions. According to reports, since 2010 Hall’s campaign has spent more than $34,000 (£20,000) on honey baked hams, which his aides say were gifts for his constituents.
While Ratcliffe has the backing of conservative groups including the influential Club for Growth, Hall has been endorsed by almost every Texas Republican in Congress – including the Tea Party darling, Senator Ted Cruz. Speaking to The Hill, Ratcliffe said Hall was merely offering voters “more of the same,” adding: “People feel Washington has never been more broken and that they want a real fighter.”
Meanwhile, Hall – who recently appeared in a television ad pointing to the wrinkles on his face and describing them as scars sustained in his congressional battles with liberals – said of his opponent, “He’s running against my birth certificate.”Reuse content