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Oldest man in Congress makes Texas history — by losing

Posted Wednesday, May. 28, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Ralph Hall made history this week, not just for being the first incumbent defeated this year as he lost in his 18th bid for re-election.

The oldest member of Congress — described as an institution in Texas politics — also became the first incumbent Republican House member from Texas to lose his party’s nomination in nearly 150 years, according to a review by SmartPolitics, a nonpartisan political news site.

Hall’s loss to John Ratcliffe, a 48-year-old former U.S. attorney backed by the Tea Party, ends a streak of 256 House primary wins by incumbent Texas Republicans.

“I just got whipped and got beat,” Hall, 91, of Rockwall, told supporters after the election results were tallied Tuesday night.

Only one other GOP House incumbent in Texas lost his party’s nomination. That was when Greg Laughlin, a Democrat newly turned Republican, lost the GOP nomination in a 1996 runoff against Ron Paul, according to the SmartPolitics review.

“Ralph Hall thus becomes the only sitting Republican U.S. House member from Texas to unsuccessfully seek renomination to his or her seat out of 257 attempts since statehood,” the review says.

Hall, a World War II veteran, was first elected to represent the 4th Congressional District — which stretches from the Dallas suburbs to Louisiana and Oklahoma — in 1980. He served as a Democrat until 2004.

The defeat of Hall and the retirement of Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the only other World War II veteran now in the House, mean that for the first time in 70 years, Congress will have no members who served in the war.

‘Desire for change’

On Tuesday, the former chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology committee claimed 47 percent of the vote to Ratcliffe’s 52.8 percent.

“It’s actually fairly uncommon for incumbents to be denied renomination,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “In the postwar era, just 2 percent of House incumbents have lost renomination.

“But even with such a low number, one expects at least a handful of members to lose, and Hall was a good candidate,” he said. “Ratcliffe’s campaign against him seemed to be less about ideology and more about a desire for change, which is an easy argument to make against a member who is 91 years old and has been in the House for more than three decades.”

Ratcliffe issued a statement thanking Hall, dean of the Texas delegation, for his service. And he wished Hall “the best moving forward.”

The key to Ratcliffe’s victory, some say, was pushing the election into a runoff with lower turnout.

“With an additional 12 weeks to campaign and make his case, Ratcliffe … was able to mount an effective campaign focused on the perils of entrenched incumbency, with a message that regardless of the personal and political qualities of a respected politician like Hall, 34 years is too long for anyone to serve in Congress,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“Ratcliffe’s anti-incumbency message resonated.”

Hall congratulated Ratcliffe on Tuesday night. But he also said he’s not going anywhere just yet.

“I look forward to getting back to work and using the rest of my time in Congress fighting for the priorities and values of those I represent,” he said in a statement.

Ratcliffe has no Democratic challenger in November. He will face Libertarian J.P. Raley.

Record holders

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, holds the record for representing the Republican Party, with 15 successful renomination bids. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio and former Rep. William Archer of Houston follow with 14.

Next are Rep. Sam Johnson of Plano and former Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, with 12 apiece.

Political observers tipped their hat to Ratcliffe.

“Ralph Hall did not conduct a strong and vigorous campaign, which accentuated his age,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Perhaps he relied too much on incumbency, and this time the strong conservatives were mad at everybody and Ralph Hall was in the way.

“There is a need in the Republican Party for young and vigorous leadership,” he said. “Also, Mr. Ratcliffe ran a good and strong campaign.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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