Republican Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, who has served 34 years in office and at age 91 is the oldest U.S. representative in history, faces the fight of his career in a May 27 runoff.
His opponent, former U.S. attorney John Ratcliffe, 48, insisted to Newsmax that "I haven't made his age an issue and I wouldn't make it an issue."
Contrary to many reports, however, the Ratcliffe-Hall showdown is not a tea party vs. Republican establishment battle. Sources in Texas' 4th Congressional District told Newsmax that local tea party groups are split down the middle. All 18 Republican county chairmen in the Northeast Texas district are supporting Hall.
While Ratcliffe has the backing from important national groups such as the Club for Growth, Hall has been endorsed by such pivotal conservative figures as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Jim Martin, head of the 60 Plus Association.
Recalling that Hall was an early supporter of 60 Plus' efforts to end the estate tax, Martin also pointed out to Newsmax that, with the retirement of veteran Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, a re-elected Hall would be the lone World War II veteran in Congress.
"This is Ralph Hall's last mission," said Martin, "and we know we'll count on him to be firing away at the death tax in the next session of Congress."
Most recently, Hall has picked up the endorsement of the entire Texas Republican delegation in the House, as well as Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, who was just tapped to be chairman of the select committee investigating Benghazi.
Steadfastly insisting that Hall's age is not the issue, Ratcliffe said it's his 34 years in Congress that's the problem.
"He stayed too long, and promised too much," said Ratcliffe, who supports term limits. "I have limited myself to four terms."
Backed by national conservative groups such as the Madison Project and the Senate Conservative Fund, in addition to the Club for Growth, Ratcliffe has spelled out specific issues on which he would have voted differently from Hall.
Where the incumbent voted to lift the debt ceiling several times, favored the farm bill and the "Cash for Clunkers" measure pushed by the Obama administration, the challenger would have opposed all three.
"His vote to lift the debt ceiling added nearly $4 trillion to the national debt," Ratcliffe said. "And he fought efforts to cut $39 billion out of the bloated food stamp program in the farm bill."
A supporter of the Balanced Budget Amendment, Ratcliffe also is a backer of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Hall opposed, and has signed the "no tax" pledge of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
Newsmax noted that when Ratcliffe was mayor of Heath in 2008 and the city council was discussing proposed budget cuts, the Rockwall County Herald Banner reported Ratcliffe as saying: "Frankly, we should have been raising the tax rate a few years ago."
Ratcliffe said: "I don't recall saying that, and quite honestly, that paper misreported me frequently. Heath's taxes did not go up during the eight years I was in office. The facts speak for themselves."
Between campaign stops, Hall defended his past votes in favor of lifting the debt ceiling. Had the debt ceiling not been lifted last year, he said, "$500 billion would have come out of the military — that's something the president told us — and we would have let down our international partners. That's not very pro-American, in my book."
Without hesitation, Hall defended his vote for Cash for Clunkers, explaining that "we were bailing out the people who make cars and not helping the people who sell cars. I look at it as trying to help the little guys in my district keep the lights on in their dealerships."
Hall also defended his votes for the farm bill, saying, "it has some good parts so I wasn't for killing it," and against NAFTA, "after taking into account what my district wants. I take orders from my district. I keep my word and I keep my district," Hall told Newsmax.
Inevitably, any interview with Ralph Hall winds back to his age. As for running again at 91, he chuckled: "Hey, I have good genes and I run two miles a day. And if you think I'm out of touch, just come to my district. Follow me around. You'll shape up."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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