Washington Bureau

03.25.14

For Whom The Tea Party Tolls

After 34 years in Congress, Ralph Hall, the oldest member of the House in U.S. history, may lose his primary runoff in May.

Ralph Hall is the oldest person to sit in the House of Representatives in American history. The Texas Republican, who was born in the Harding Adminstration, was first elected to Congress in 1980 and has represented Northeast Texas's 4th Congressionial District ever since. But his time on Capitol Hill may come to an abrupt end in Texas's primary runoff on May 27th as conservatives sense blood in the water.

It's never a good sign for an incumbent to be held beneath 50% and forced into a runoff but that's just what happened to Hall in his primary earlier this month. Attorney John Ratcliffe, who was endorsed by the Dallas Morning News,  held Hall to 45% and now has the opportunity to take down the nonagenarian congressman in May. And he'll have a lot of help doing so.

Both the Club for Growth and the Madison Project, two conservative Tea Party affiliated PACs, announced Tuesday that they would be endorsing Ratcliffe. In a statement, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola compared Ratcliffe to Ted Cruz, saying that the GOP challenger is "a constitutional conservative who will champion economic freedom and individual liberty in Congress." No mention was made of Hall. 

The Madison Project took a slightly different approach. While it echoed the Club's praise for Ratcliffe, it also went after Hall. Although the group took pains to point out that, like Brutus, "Hall is an honorable man," it also attacked him as a man who turned "his position into a career devoid of any desire to fight the status quo."

The funny thing is Hall had never popped on anyone's list of RINOs to be challenged. The Texas Republican scores relatively well on scorecards from conservative groups. FreedomWorks scored him at 86% last year Heritage had him at 75% last year, putting him in the middle of pack for Texas GOPers in their rankings. In contrast, the Club for Growth had Hall lower by a mere one percentage point at 74%, which left the Texas congressman below in the mean among Texas Republicans but still in the middle of the pack for the House GOP Caucus. 

Ironically, what has gone unmentioned is that for Hall's first 24 years in Congress, no one could even accuse him of being a RINO. Why? Because he was a Democrat.

Hall was one of the last of the yellow dog Democrats in Congress. Although his voting record was always conservative, he still maintained his Democratic registration in a congressional district that was once represented by Sam Rayburn. However, he didn't finally cross party lines until after the controversial mid-cycle gerrymandering of Texas's congressional districts by the GOP in 2003. At that point, Hall, who had backed George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, finally gave up the ghost and crossed the aisle.

The logic then isn't that Hall is insufficently conservative or even that he was once a Democrat but simply that he's an easy scalp at this point. The Texas congressman will be 91 by Election Day and has pledged to retire after this term. He's a lame duck who looks very vulnerable and won't even be able to exact much retribution if he manages to win. In contrast, Ratcliffe would be a grateful ally of these outside conservative groups if elected. It's no lose situation for them. Further, it's not just the Tea Party turning on Hall but establishment Republicans are joining in as well. Roll Call reported Tuesday that Matt Mackowiak, a former press secretary to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, is joining the Ratcliffe campaign as well.

The runoff is still two months away but is expected to have a very low turnout and an energized Tea Party leaning electorate due to competitive races for other offices, like lieutenant governor. Hall would have been vulnerable in this scenario regardless but, with outside conservative groups backing his opponent, it seems likely that this will be the last stand for the longtime incumbent.