John Ratcliffe has a lot to say about U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, the oldest member of Congress and Ratcliffe’s opponent in a May 27 Republican primary runoff. Ratcliffe accuses Hall, R-Rockwall, of having stayed in Washington too long and of having become a “less effective” legislator.
What Ratcliffe is not saying is that Hall, who turns 91 next month, is too old for office.
“I haven’t made age an issue in the campaign,” said Ratcliffe, 48, who has made term limits a tenet of his platform. “He wants to stay in Washington for 36 years, and I think that’s anathema to the Constitution.”
While Ratcliffe has tiptoed around the subject of his opponent’s age, Hall has made it campaign material. In a recent campaign advertisement, Hall said the creases on his face were battle scars from fighting liberals in Washington.
“By gosh, I’ve got room for a few more wrinkles,” Hall said in the TV advertisement. Representatives from his campaign did not return requests to comment for this article.
Political strategists say that as Ratcliffe tries to make Hall’s tenure in Washington a key point of his campaign, he must do so without alienating older voters in a district where his opponent has decades of name recognition.
“I’ve been describing Ratcliffe’s difficulty as not wanting to appear like a vulture on the fence post,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “He has treated the issue of age gingerly because he wants people thinking about it, but he doesn’t want to say in any sort of stark way that Ralph Hall is too old.”
A March primary with six Republicans forced the incumbent into a runoff for the first time in his 33-year congressional career. Hall finished with 45 percent of the vote, while Ratcliffe took second, with just under 29 percent.
Ratcliffe has campaigned to Hall’s right, winning endorsements from national conservative groups like the antitax Club for Growth for his hard stance against raising the federal debt ceiling. A former U.S. attorney, Ratcliffe is partner at a law firm run by John Ashcroft, the former U.S. attorney general.
Ratcliffe’s political experience includes a two-term stint as mayor of Heath, a small town in the congressional district in northeast Texas. In 2012, 15.3 percent of the district’s constituents were older than 65 — about 40 percent higher than the state average, according to U.S. census data.
For Ratcliffe, campaigning on his relative youth would risk alienating those older voters, an important demographic in a Republican runoff, said Bryan Eppstein, a Republican consultant in Fort Worth.
“Any time a challenger tries to make age or gender an issue, that’s a slippery slope,” Eppstein said, adding, “People know, you never underestimate Ralph Hall.”
Hall got his start in politics in 1950 as a county judge, after serving in World War II as a Navy pilot. He was first elected to Congress in 1980, where he has served 17 consecutive terms, first as a conservative Democrat before switching parties in 2004. He has said that whether he wins or loses, this campaign will be his last.
Hall is used to proving his vim and vigor. He has told reporters that he keeps fit by running two miles every day. On the 2012 campaign trail, he jumped out of a plane in response to allegations that he was too old to run.
“In politics, age is not the issue,” Eppstein said. “Vitality is the issue.”