Election 2016

Tea Party's Ageist Attacks Work: Oldest Member of Congress Upset in Runoff Election

At 91, Ralph Hall was the oldest member of Congress and his primary challenger didn't let anyone forget that.

Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican, is 91 years old. His age became a campaign issue in yesterday's runoff election, where he was upset by a Tea Party opponent, U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe. The underdog in the runoff made sure that voters knew of Hall's age in the race's closing weeks. Ratcliffe beat Hall by taking 53 percent of the vote. 

Ratcliffe forced Hall into a runoff by holding him below 50 percent in the March primary. Hall led Ratcliffe 45 to 29 percent in that election. 

Ratcliffe recently appeared on MSNBC's “The Daily Rundown” to defend his own campaign ads, where called for a “new generation” of leadership and questioned the length of Hall’s tenure. Ratcliffe, however, was careful to not directly criticize Hall's age, but said the topic was fair game. In the interview with host Chuck Todd, Ratcliffe instead focused on the 17-term incumbent's long-term record on the national debt. 

"It's something the voters are concerned about," Mr. Ratcliffe said on MSNBC, when asked about Hall’s age. "It's certainly something that we haven't focused on in our campaign. I've talked about his tenure, the fact that I think he's been there too long, but voters raise the issue of his age, and I think that's fair for them to consider."

Hall was the target of a several right-wing groups, such as The Club for Growth, who backed Ratcliffe in the primary and runoff. Similarly, the Senate Conservatives Fund spent $60,000 on Ratcliffe. A political action committee called Now or Never PAC spent more than $100,000 in advertising that reminded voters that Hall was first elected when Jimmy Carter was president in 1980.

One television ad (shown just prior to Hall’s recent 91st birthday) noted, “Now he’s 90, the oldest member in Congress ever.” The spot concluded with an image of a rocking chair and the words, “Times have changed. After 34 years, let’s bring Ralph Hall home.” 

Ratcliffe is 43 years Hall's junior. 

Campaigning against a candidate's age is a common tactic. Candidates try to take advantage of America's youth-centered culture to fight back against any advantage of incumbency. Thus, age and experience become a liability.

Age has already become an issue in the 2016 Presidential campaign as Republican operative Karl Rove has brought up Hillary Clinton’s age and health problems during her tenure as secretary of State. Should Clinton ascend to the Oval Office, she would be 69, second only to Ronald Reagan, who was a few days short of 70 when he assumed office. 

The GOP’s presidential hopefuls, such as Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Rand Paul are all relatively young. Christie, at 51, is the oldest in the field. 

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Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.