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Texas Congressman Ralph Hall, 34-Year Incumbent, Hits a Rough Patch

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US Representative Ralph Hall, right, with Governor Rick Perry
US Representative Ralph Hall, right, with Governor Rick Perry

While Senator John Cornyn and U.S. Representative Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) may have handily beat their primary challengers, one congressional incumbent wasn’t so lucky—U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Rockwall) was forced into a runoff with John Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney and former mayor of Heath, Texas. There are several signs Ratcliffe’s challenge is picking up momentum—the latest being the endorsement of state Representative Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).

The runoff is notable because of one characteristic the 90-year-old Hall shares with other members of the Texas congressional delegation—his advanced age. Hall is the oldest member of the U.S. House, and to call him a veteran of Texas politics would be an understatement. An aircraft carrier pilot in World War II and a Democrat for more than a half-century, Hall won a seat in the Texas Senate in 1962. In 1972, he ran in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

He won a seat in Congress in 1980, then switched parties in 2004. After that, his grip on the seat was a little more tenuous. He’s one of the last of the old-school conservative Texas Democratic establishment to hang around, even if he’s no longer with his original party. Ever since his switch, he’s had increasing trouble with his electoral prospects—but he’s never had to survive a runoff until now.

Ralph Hall, left, and Ronald Reagan
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Ralph Hall, left, and Ronald Reagan

Those who switch parties often have trouble winning over their new base. It’s not that Hall was ever a liberal—he was one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress for many years. But he’s seemed ill at ease with new tendencies and trends in the conservative base, which often demand rhetorical stances that require a nuanced understanding of the base to perform. A few weeks ago, he called for House Speaker John Boehner to resign. That’s something many conservatives may want, but Hall’s call seemed particularly unsubtle—impolitic.

But Hall’s trouble now is more due to his age than anything else—he’d told his constituents he’d step down after his next term, but apparently that wasn’t soon enough for some. Enter Ratcliffe, 48, a handsome former mayor and George W. Bush appointee. He’s got a photogenic family and a good resumé. Unable, thanks to societal conventions, to simply call Hall too grey to be an effective congressman, he’s tried to be indirect about it—but not too indirect. He kicked off his final pre-primary push by completing a 5k fun run, highlighting his vigor.

As is often the case with longtime incumbents, what Hall had going for him is momentum. No citizen born after 1962, who grew up and lived in Hall’s district, had ever cast a vote in an election where Hall stood a chance of losing. At a certain point, that kind of incumbency becomes fiefdom. But when a credible challenger asserts themselves, that support can fall away rather quickly.

Yesterday, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg endorsed Ratcliffe. It would be surprising if she was acting without the knowledge that others would follow. In remarks to the Dallas Morning News, Laubenberg again used the coded language everyone’s been using to refer to Hall’s age. Ratcliffe, she said, was able to face “the new threat to our liberty,” and “will step up to defend liberty for this generation.”

Hall is quite a bit older than—well, than just about anybody in the House of Representatives. But he’s not the only Texas congressman on the grey side. Among the 2011-2013 congressional class, the average age of a Republican representative was 54.9. It was the oldest Congress in our nation’s history. But the average age of a member of the Texas GOP congressional delegation is 63. That might not sound that old, but consider members of the Texas congressional delegation: Sam Johnson (R-Plano) is 83; John Carter (R-Round Rock) is 72; and Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth) is a spritely 71.

Texas’ one-party nature has meant, for many incumbents, less competition and more secure paychecks. But there’s a lot of young conservative political prospects out there—and a restless conservative base—who want new leadership, and representation in tune with their particular concerns. Hall, 90, may be an outlier, but there are others who may find challengers like Ratcliffe gain unexpected traction in future election cycles.

Christopher Hooks joined the Observer in 2014. Previously, he was a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.