Former Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, who was elected to the House as a Democrat in 1980 and joined the GOP in 2004, died Thursday at the age of 95. Hall, who was 91 when he left office in 2015 after losing the GOP primary to now-Rep. John Ratcliffe, is also the oldest person to ever serve in the House. Hall’s passing also marks the end of an era: He and Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who died last month, were the last two living World War II veterans to serve in Congress.
Hall grew up in the Dallas suburb of Fate and said that, while working at a local pharmacy as a boy, two of his customers were the famous fugitives Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Hall recounted in 2014 that Bonnie and Clyde used curb-service and purchased “two cartons of Old Golds, two Coca-Colas and all the newspapers we had.” He further said that Barrow “was a funny looking little guy” while Parker “was acceptable looking” and that he didn’t think his encounter with them was “that unusual. They were a lot of places.”
Hall joined the Navy in World War II and flew Hellcat fighters, and he graduated law school after the conflict. Hall had trouble supporting his family and planned to get a night job, but his wife, Mary Ellen Hall, instead suggested he pay the bills by getting into politics. The future congressman would later say that in 1950, he gave Mary Ellen Hall a check and told her to find him an office to run for in Rockwell County, but “she didn’t go ask if any office was open.” Instead, “She asked what was the highest-paying position in the county, and it was county judge.” That turned out to be an important job because in Texas, both then and now, county judges function as both a county executive and legislator rather than as a judicial official.
Ralph Hall said later that he won the office “because I was pitiful looking,” saying, “I was about 6-foot-2 ½, weighed about 150 pounds, looked like Ichabod Crane and was having a hard time in school,” and that voters felt “sorry for me.” However, they kept him around for 12 years. Hall said that at some point in the 1950s, a group of Republicans tried to convince him to challenge Democratic Rep. Sam Rayburn, the longest serving House speaker in history. Hall’s mother was a close friend of Rayburn and she was not amused, telling him, “If you do that, where are you going to get breakfast?”
That campaign never happened. Rayburn died in office in 1961, and the following year, Hall was elected to the state Senate as a Democrat. He served in the legislature until he gave up his seat in 1972 to run for lieutenant governor, but Hall took fourth place in the Democratic primary.
Hall was out of politics for eight years, which he spent acting as chief executive of Texas Aluminum Corp. and opening a bank in Rockwell. However, he got his chance to return to office in 1980 when Rep. Ray Roberts, the Democrat who had succeeded Rayburn in the House after the speaker died, decided to retire and picked Hall to succeed him.
Hall won the Democratic primary 56-44 for Texas’ 4th District, a seat that included Denton in the Dallas suburbs as well as Longview and Tyler in rural East Texas, and he held off a Republican to win 52-48 in November. This was the only time that Hall, as either a Republican or a Democrat, would fail to win a primary or general election by double digits until his 2014 defeat.
When he arrived in Washington, Hall was one of a large number of conservative Democrats in the House, and he joined his compatriots in voting with President Ronald Reagan on budget matters. That was far from the only time that Hall would defy Democratic leaders over the next 23 years. In 1998, Hall was one of just a few Democrats to vote to impeach President Bill Clinton, and he crossed party lines to endorse Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Hall turned down multiple GOP offers to switch parties, saying he wanted to keep the conservative wing of the Democratic Party alive. However, during his 2002 campaign, he assured Republican leaders that he’d back Speaker Dennis Hastert if his vote was needed. Hastert didn’t need his support to remain speaker, but in 2003, Hall voted “present” rather than back Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Republicans, including Bush, continued to press Hall to switch parties. In 2003, the new GOP-led Texas state legislature dramatically redrew the state’s congressional map to elect more Republicans, but they left his seat largely intact. Hall also said that as a Democrat, it was tough to secure appropriations for his seat through the GOP House.
Hall recounted in 2013 that in January 2004, when it was time for him to file for re-election, he was conflicted about what party to run with. Hall said he “sent two applications down (to the elections office); two checks for $25: one for the Republican, one for the Democrat,” and that he “sent a guy 30 minutes before the deadline to go in there and said, ‘I’ll call and tell you which I want to be.’” Hall ended up choosing to go with the GOP, saying that he made the decision “at the last minute.” He recounted that he hadn’t even told his wife, Mary Ellen Hall, that he was switching parties until he’d done it, and she replied, “Hope you enjoy eating out and sleeping by yourself for about three weeks.”
Hall’s new party was much happier with his choice than his wife was. Hall received a senior post on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he loyally voted with the GOP for the rest of his career. Hall won his first GOP primary two months after his party switch with 77 percent of the vote, and he had no trouble winning the general election in what was quickly becoming an inhospitable area for national Democrats.
Hall easily held his seat over the next few years, but there were early indications that Republicans in the tea party era were not so keen on keeping Hall around much longer. In 2010, Hall won renomination just 57-30 against an underfunded opponent named Steve Clark. Two years later, Hall beat Clark 58-21, another sign that he could have trouble against a stronger primary foe.
That stronger foe arrived in 2014 in the form of John Ratcliffe, a wealthy former U.S. attorney who, like Hall 10 years before, entered the GOP primary at the last minute. Hall, who said that he was running for his final term, led Ratcliffe 45-29 in the primary, but that was a few points short of the majority that the incumbent needed to avoid a runoff.
A number of national anti-establishment groups, including the Club for Growth, rallied behind Ratcliffe in the second round of the campaign. One group, Now or Never PAC, even ran ads portraying Hall as an aged earmarker who was out of touch with GOP values. Hall sought to portray his age as a positive with an ad where he showed the audience all the wrinkles he’d gotten from fighting for conservative priorities and told them, “By gosh I've got room for a few more wrinkles.”
However, it wasn’t enough. Ratcliffe beat Hall 53-47, a defeat that gave Hall the unwelcome distinction of being the second Texas Republican congressman to ever lose renomination. (The first, Greg Laughlin in 1996, was a former Democrat who had switched parties just months before his primary defeat.) Hall was generous in defeat, and Ratcliffe recounted that he went out of his way to help him with the transition.