Texan's Final Campaign May Act As National Barometer

Republican Ralph Hal of Texas, the longest-serving member of the House, has escaped anti-incumbent moods in the past, but if there's such a wave building in 2014, his district may be an indication.

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In northeast Texas, from the Dallas suburbs to Texarkana, Republican Ralph Hall is seeking an 18th term in Congress. Hall is 90 years old and the oldest member of Congress. At a time of deep voter anger with Washington, Hall's long incumbency and his age have drawn a crowded field of primary challengers. He's assuring his constituents that it will be his last campaign, but if there's an anti-incumbent wave building, his east Texas district may be an early barometer.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: They strolled in from the parking lot past the jumble of political lawn signs for the Bowie County candidate forum at the local high school. Congressman Ralph Hall did not attend. That's not unusual for the incumbent. But he did have supporters here. This is 47-year-old Lisa Singleton.

LISA SINGLETON: I'm voting for Ralph Hall. I know him. I've known him for years. He's a very conservative gentleman. I really like him, have been in Washington, D.C. and met him, really think he is the one that we really need.

GONYEA: But other viewpoints are easy to find. Standing on the sidewalk 10 feet away is John Derr who won't be pulling the lever for the incumbent Congressman.

JOHN DERR: Most of the Congress are detached from what we, the people, feel in this country. And I really see that that's where the disconnect is. Congress' approval is very low. It can't get any lower, but I don't see anybody voting anybody out and you can't get change without change.

GONYEA: As evening settled in, people headed inside where steam rose from giant pots of chili cooked up by the New Boston Volunteer Fire Department.

SINGLETON: That's a big ole pot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That'll put hair - will that put hair on your chest?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, just put hot sauce in for me.

GONYEA: Fifty-seven year old retiree Rodney May is here with his wife Deena. They're undecided, but Rodney adds...

RODNEY MAY: Any of the incumbents in Congress, I'm gonna vote against them.

GONYEA: Yeah?

MAY: Yes. That's just the way I feel about it.

GONYEA: What do you think of the Congress in general?

MAY: Very little. I don't - they don't do their job. That's my opinion.

GONYEA: And that counts against Ralph Hall whether he's...

MAY: I don't care whether it's Republican or Democrat.

GONYEA: Polls show a lot of people around the country feel that way. It doesn't mean incumbents don't still have a tremendous advantage, they do, but the discontent is real. In Texas' fourth district, people refer to Congressman Hall simply as Ralph. Elected in 1980, Hal is the oldest person ever to serve in the U.S. House, but his challengers seem careful not to explicitly make Hal's age the issue. After the chili dinner has been cleaned up, the candidate forum begins.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Father, we thank you for this day and we thank you for this opportunity we have to hear from the candidates. We thank you for this nation that we have that we...

GONYEA: Three of Congressman Hall's GOP challengers are here. Hal has sent a surrogate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And here, speaking for Mr. Ralph Hall is one of our own, Fred Melton. Let's welcome Fred.

FRED MELTON: Thank you for having me tonight here to speak on behalf of Congressman Ralph Hall. We are fortunate to have someone like Ralph representing us in Congress because with Ralph, you always know where you stand.

GONYEA: In recent years, when a GOP incumbent has faced a primary fight, it's been from the Tea Party. Some of Hall's opponents have Tea Party backing, but the best-funded challenger is an establishment Republican, 48-year-old former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe who's been endorsed by the big newspaper around here, The Dallas Morning News.

JOHN RATCLIFFE: You know, I like Congressman Hall like many people in this district, but, you know, frankly, Congressman Hall's had 34 years to fix Washington and it's never been more broken. I'm of the opinion that the problems there are going to require bold and energetic leadership for years to come, and I think I'm the best person on the ballot to do that.

GONYEA: Another candidate, Lou Gigliotti, a former math teacher and race car driver, puts it more bluntly.

LOU GIGLIOTTI: These are temporary politicians and they make laws that affect us for the rest of our life. There's not a business in America that would hire a 91-year-old man to run their company.

GONYEA: There was a straw poll at the candidate forum. Congressman Hall won easily. The task for his challengers in the March 4th primary is to keep Hall's vote total below 50 percent, forcing a runoff election. In the 2012 primary, Ralph Hall won 58 percent of the vote. That's low for an incumbent. His opponents say that means he's vulnerable this time. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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