ROCKWALL, Texas (AP) — Congressman Ralph Hall, at 91 the oldest-ever member of the U.S. House, was ousted Tuesday in the Texas Republican runoff by a candidate barely half his age.
Backed by powerful national conservative groups, 48-year-old former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe was able to paint Hall as too cozy with the GOP establishment after 34 years in office. He forced the incumbent into his first runoff in 17 terms in the House, then won it decisively.
"I just got whipped and got beat," Hall told supporters in his hometown of Rockwall, where he once had a brush with notorious outlaws Bonnie and Clyde while working in a pharmacy as a boy. He insisted, though, that he wasn't surprised or sad.
Ratcliffe relied on modern analytics to better target would-be voters, while Hall used more traditional techniques such as direct mailings and walking cities and towns to chat with voters. At his election party Tuesday night, Hall campaign staffers even wrote county-by-county results on butcher paper tapped to the wall.
"We really felt optimistic," Ratcliffe said in a phone interview, even before Hall had called to concede. He said he considered himself an underdog until the minute the polls closed.
Hall first ran for political office in 1950 and won his congressional seat when Jimmy Carter was president. He was a Democrat until switching parties in 2004.
The only World War II veteran left in Congress seeking re-election, Hall promised that his next term would be his last but said he wanted to remain in office long enough to help the GOP win the White House in 2016.
No Democrat is running in the district that stretches from suburban Dallas east to Louisiana and north to Oklahoma — meaning Ratcliffe will be headed to Washington after the November general election.
Anna DiGirolamo, a 19-year-old student at Texas A&M University, was voting for her second time Tuesday at the city hall in Heath, where Ratcliffe was once mayor. She said she researched both candidates by watching some of their commercials on YouTube.
"He's been here for a long time and he's done good things, but I think it's time for a new opinion," DiGirolamo said of Hall, who didn't open a Twitter account until last year.
An avid jogger, Hall went skydiving when facing a 2012 primary challenge and had planned to do so twice this year but canceled due to icy conditions. Instead, he made a playful television ad pointing to the wrinkles on his face and calling them scars of congressional fights with liberals.
Still, even before his defeat was official, Hall called the race "not one of my best ones, that's for sure."
Asked about voters who stayed home for a runoff featuring light-turnout, he responded: "I don't know what you do to them. You fuss at 'em. But it's a runoff and you can't ever tell."
In Texas' March primary, Hall won 45 percent of the vote compared to Ratcliffe's nearly 29 percent. No one won a majority in a six-way race, though, so Hall was forced into the first runoff of his congressional career.
Ratcliffe was supported by the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, but Hall won endorsements from tea party favorite Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and leading Christian conservative voice and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Neville Govender, also casting his ballot in Heath, said he had never bothered to vote in a congressional election until this year because he knew Hall would win in a rout. But this time was different.
"I just believe in what he stands for, his energy," Govender said of Ratcliffe. "I believe we need change."