Congress’s oldest member is facing the toughest race of his career.
Ninety-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) will square off Tuesday against former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe (R) for the right to end his 34-year congressional career on his own terms.
The dean of the Texas congressional delegation has already said 2014 will be his final election, but Lone Star Republicans say he might not get that chance. Ratcliffe has been using his deep pockets to make the argument to voters that the time for change should be now, not next cycle.
The GOP challenger’s heavy spending has caught the cash-strapped incumbent off guard. If Hall is held under 50 percent in the first round against Ratcliffe and four other candidates and forced into a runoff, a low-turnout May contest could be perilous.
“I think he’s going to a runoff with Ratcliffe,” predicted Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, who said he’s neutral in the race. “Hall is a very sympathetic, likable character, especially in Northeast Texas. But you haven’t had the person with the right mix of strengths to topple him in the past, and I think Ratcliffe may have those strengths.”
Hall is an institution in East Texas and in the halls of Congress. He’s also the last World War II veteran running for reelection in 2014 following Rep. John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) decision to retire. But he’s faced few serious challengers since he entered Congress in 1980 despite switching from the Democratic Party to the GOP a decade ago. While Hall was held to less than 60 percent of the vote in his last two primary wins, he’s never been forced into a runoff campaign.
But even Hall’s allies admit that Ratcliffe is a much better candidate than the longtime congressman’s previous opponents. The former mayor of small-town Heath, Texas, Ratcliffe has given his campaign nearly a half-million dollars, outspending Hall, who had less than $200,000 in the bank at the end of 2013.
Ratcliffe, 48, has been using Hall’s age as an issue in the race, arguing it’s time for someone new for the district.
“I like Congressman Hall, but I think it’s time. He’s been less effective as the years have gone by,” Ratcliffe told The Hill. “He’s a nice man who’s had a long record of good service in the district. But my impression is people see him as less effective.”
Even The Dallas Morning News agreed, endorsing Ratcliffe as “a clear alternative” to the incumbent.
“This newspaper applauds Hall’s long service, but there comes a time when new ideas and fresh energy are needed,” the editorial board wrote.
Ratcliffe says Hall is part of the problem in Washington, lumping him in with other GOP leaders he believes haven’t battled hard enough against President Obama.
“As a Republican I’ve watched our party continue to lose ground and get outworked, outsmarted and beaten on the issues by the Democrats,” he said. “I see Congressman Hall as part of a class of senior leadership up there that really has been ineffective in that regard.”
Ratcliffe says he’s “not a labels guy” when asked if he’s a Tea Party candidate but is positioning himself to the right of Hall. The challenger said that if elected, he’d vote for someone other than Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker.
“I would like to see better leadership at the top, so I would like to have some better choices,” said Ratcliffe. “There are other people I would support and think would be a better choice than John Boehner. A lot of our leadership, frankly, hasn’t served us well.”
Ratcliffe has spent more than $400,000 on TV and direct-mail ads for the race, and promises if he makes the runoff to give his campaign even more money.
Hall hasn’t had the same resources, but recently went on the air on cable TV in Shreveport to push back on the attacks on his age. He’s also been on air in some of the smaller media markets in the expansive district.
“When you battle Nancy Pelosi as much as I have you’re bound to get a few wrinkles. See this one? Got it taking on the liberals when they attacked our 2nd Amendment rights,” he says in the ad, pointing to a wrinkle under his eye. “Texas values are still worth fighting for, and by gosh, I’ve got room for a few more wrinkles.”
Hall has gone out of his way to show he’s still up for the job. He still claims to run two miles daily, and days before his 2012 primary went skydiving to prove he’s still spry. A source close to Hall said he’d planned to do the same this past weekend, but that the two jumps he’d scheduled for Sunday got canceled because of bad weather.
Hall allies admit Ratcliffe is their fiercest challenger yet, but they point out that Hall has had nearly $1 million spent against him in his two most recent races with limited success. A self-funding candidate challenged him in 2010, and the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an anti-incumbent super-PAC, made him a target in 2012.
“They’re definitely doing more than what we’ve seen in the past, but it’s more of the same packaged differently,” said Hall campaign manager Ed Valentine.
Both campaigns say they expect a close race — Hall’s predicts he will win the primary outright on Tuesday, while Ratcliffe’s says it believes he will hold the veteran just under 50 percent.
If the race does go into a runoff, Ratcliffe’s anti-Washington message could resonate even more with core conservatives likely to turn out.
“We have an excellent chance of winning without a runoff,” Valentine argued. “But runoffs are strange animals, so obviously we’d prefer to win it outright, as we have in the past.”
Others warn though that a runoff could be dangerous for Hall.
“I think there’s a 75 percent chance there’s a runoff,” said Mackowiak. “And if there’s a runoff, I think there’s a 75 percent chance that Ratcliffe beats Hall.”