Rep. Ralph M. Hall is in a Texas-sized heap of political trouble — and it's mostly of the 90-year-old Republican's own doing.
Over the winter, the 17-term incumbent ignored danger signs in his bid for re-election, namely that a self-funding rival was outspending him in a primary. That candidate, attorney John Ratcliffe, has forced Hall into a May 27 runoff.
Now Texas House Republicans are scrambling to help Hall, who has vowed this will be his final campaign. “We have sort of code of conduct and honor in our delegation that we stick together, and Ralph’s one of our dearest members, and it’d be tragic to see him lose what could be his last election,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Hall remains popular within his own, close-knit delegation . An aide with Hall’s camp said that for days after the primary, the phones rang off the hook with calls from various members wanting to help.
“We’ve rallied behind him both financially and through other means to support him,” McCaul added.
Multiple Texas Republican sources said Republican Rep. Lamar Smith is leading the charge within the delegation to save Hall. Capitol Hill sources also confirmed that after the primary, Hall’s team reached out to House leadership to solicit fundraising and campaign advice.
“He’s fiscally conservative, and I think the votes know that, and I certainly hope they do,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said.
But even Hall's admirers say his hopes for his re-election dim by the day — and he will face a greater challenge than the first round in the one-on-one runoff with Ratcliffe.
Deep-pocketed, national conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Madison Project targeted Hall by endorsing Ratcliffe this week. It's an unusually late show of support from these groups, which often back candidates early so they can use the endorsement for fundraising.
What's more, the club gave Hall a 76 percent lifetime "pro-growth" record on its scorecard . Other targets of the group this cycle received much lower ratings; for example Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, had a 58 percent lifetime record.
Here's one potential reason: Hall looks vulnerable, and his seat is an early win for them.
But the club's endorsement might also be a sign of Ratcliffe's strength as a candidate. The organization has been more selective with its endorsements this cycle. The club’s political action committee arm has endorsed only two other House candidates so far, one of whom is a sitting member, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.
Ratcliffe recently added Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak — a former press secretary to ex-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas — to his team.
Now or Never PAC, a super PAC, is also playing in the primary, going up with an ad against Hall last week that directly referenced his age and featured a rocking chair. Hall, who will be 91 in May, is the oldest member of Congress.
But those kinds of attacks could backfire. Ratcliff denied using Hall's age as an attack point in the race.
"I've said throughout that campaign that I won't make age an issue and I haven't. I've talked about tenure," Ratcliffe said in an early March interview after the primary. "Asking voters for 35th and 36th years in Congress is something I don't think is good for the voters of the district."
Supporters say Hall is in this hole because he failed to put together a modern campaign. He did little to prepare for his race until early February, and he waited until late in the primary to go on television. Two weeks before the March 4 primary, Hall signed Texas Republican ad-man Scott Howell and, together, they produced a witty , last-minute spot on his age.
But by that point, Ratcliffe had already put $400,000 of his own funds towards the race. Hall's friends in the delegation and top Texas consultants were already occupied with other races. Fellow House GOP members were busy watching their own right flanks ahead of the primary.
Hall far outpaced his rivals , taking 45 percent of the vote in the primary, while Ratcliffe earned 29 percent of the vote. Unfortunately for Hall, that means more than half of the primary electorate voted against him.
"I've loaned myself $35,000 for this race, 'cause I was at $65,000 when [Ratcliffe] entered the race," Hall told CQ Roll Call on the day after the primary. "And now see [my opponent is] going to give himself $400,000. And that didn't scare me, but it concerned me."
In an interview with a local affiliate , Hall blamed his runoff on a busy House floor schedule that tied him up when his rivals could be on the ground. Hall later picked up endorsements from three of his primary rivals who did not make it to the runoff.
Hall has a reputation for stellar constituent services and boasts strong name identification, according to interviews with delegation staff on Capitol Hill and in Texas.
But sometimes, likeability isn't enough to win.
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.