WASHINGTON — Not so long ago, John Ratcliffe might have felt like he was running against the entire Texas GOP House delegation. But these days, Ratcliffe is a part of the family.
And some of his fellow Texas Republican congressmen are not only voicing their clear support for the Heath Republican, they’re showing it with contributions to help him retire his campaign’s debt.
"I'm grateful for the support and have developed some very strong relationships and friendships within the Texas delegation and this conference very quickly," Ratcliffe said of the donations.
During a hard-fought 2014 primary and runoff with U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, the dean of the Texas delegation and a beloved figure in his party, Ratcliffe funded much of his own campaign with massive six-figure loans. In the meantime, members of the Texas delegation rallied to raise money for Hall when they realized his re-election prospects were in serious trouble.
"It’d be tragic to see him lose what could be his last election," U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said of Hall to Roll Call at the time.
But Ratcliffe prevailed and took office in January. Not long after he was sworn in, Ratcliffe raised money to pay off the campaign debt he owed to himself.
Pitching in to help him retire the debt were a pair of those same Texans who had helped fund the Hall campaign: U.S. Reps. Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock and Kevin Brady of The Woodlands.
"Ralph Hall continues to be a dear friend, and our delegation supported him," said Brady, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "[But] John Ratcliffe won the nomination. We back our nominees."
Brady contributed $5,000 toward Ratcliffe's debt retirement in February, and Neugebauer followed suit with $2,500 on March. Neugebauer then donated an additional $5,000 to Ratcliffe's re-election in September.
Ratcliffe still owes several hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to campaign finance records. But typically, candidates take their time paying off debt when the lender is himself, if he pays it off at all.
This support is a change from 18 months ago, when Texas Republicans donated about $130,000 from their campaign accounts to help Hall.
Like most campaigns, the ads and debates were tough. Hall's age was the implicit issue in a race — between two men who both boasted conservative credentials.
A super PAC, to which Ratcliffe had no ties nor control of, ran an ad against Hall noting the 90-year-old congressman’s age.
But one Texas GOP congressman said that there was no lingering resentment over the campaign and that Ratcliffe has acquitted himself well in his first year on Capitol Hill.
"One of the things you have to learn up here is if you get your feelings hurt easily, you shouldn't be up here," Neugebauer said.
"Elections are about the people. The people made their choice, which one they're going to send," he added. "Ralph Hall served with distinction for a number of years, and Mr. Ratcliffe is going to make a great member."
Friendships in Congress are intense, and members take their colleagues' electoral losses personally.
But Texas Republicans are focused on putting on a united front to maximize their power as a voting bloc, and by all appearances they seem to like Ratcliffe as well.
"He's my teammate now," said Neugebauer. "Ralph Hall was my teammate, and I gave him money in that race. And now that Mr. Ratcliffe ... is on the Republican team — and more importantly, he's on our Texas team — and we wanted to make sure he comes back."
In Ratcliffe’s view, there’s a primary reason that he has had such a smooth transition: his predecessor.
"From the minute I won the runoff against Congressman Hall, Congressman Hall has been extraordinarily gracious to me, and I think that members of the Texas delegation and members of the Republican Conference had taken their cue from him," Ratcliffe said, echoing comments he made in a February interview with the Tribune.
"And I owe him my gratitude for that," he added. "Folks have given me the opportunity to form their own impressions of who John Ratcliffe is."
And so far, the impressions are good.
"Truthfully, I'm just so impressed with that guy," Brady said. "And tell you what, John's doing a terrific job."