WASHINGTON – The peculiar winds of political change have not only brought a dramatically new redistricting map to Texas, but have prompted an 80-year-old congressman to switch parties for the first time in his more than 50 years of public service.
Rep. Ralph Hall (search) announced in January that he would be jumping the fence to the Republican side. The news came shortly after a three-judge federal panel upheld a GOP-driven redistricting map that bolstered Republicans, who believe they can gain at least six new seats in the November elections.
Hall’s switch also created a 16-16 split between Republicans and Democrats in the current Texas House delegation.
Hall, who is the eldest member of the House and has served there since 1980 — after a lengthy career as a county judge and state senator — serves the 16-county 4th Congressional District. In the reshuffling of districts, the 4th District lost nine counties and gained 10 from neighboring districts. The result was a greater influx of Republican voters to an already moderately-conservative electorate.
While he faces a great deal of new, more conservative voters in the 4th District, Hall said in his announcement that being a Democrat had become a detriment since his party affiliation caused him to lose out on appropriations.
“This year I was denied requests for district appropriations because I was a Democrat who voted against the bill,” he said during his announcement. “I have always said that inasmuch as I was a Democrat representing a conservative and Republican district, that if being a Democrat hurt my district, I would resign or switch parties. Today, I kept my word.”
In this region of Texas — which stretches from the Dallas suburbs northeast to Texarkana — voters are familiar with the adage that a Democrat here is more conservative than a New York Republican. The district sent up to Congress Sam Rayburn (search), who served from 1912 to 1961 and ended his career as speaker of the House.
Voters — especially those in the more rural cattle ranch and farm territory in the east — resemble the old Democratic Party in Texas, said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. They are conservative on both fiscal and social issues and have little in common with the liberal sensibilities of their northern counterparts.
Hall was already considered a compatriot of the GOP, and no one seems to expect a dramatic departure from the way he votes in Congress now that he’s made a clean break.
“It is not going to make a big difference because he and I have voted the same way on issues as long as we’ve been in Congress and on the [House Science] committee,” Barton told Foxnews.com. Until the switch, Hall was the ranking member on the committee.
“This [decision] acknowledges that he’s a conservative, and we are the party of conservatives,” said Barton, who called Hall a personal friend and mentor.
“He’s been conservative, he’s often voted with Republicans, and won’t be seen by anyone as someone who made this decision despite his personal viewpoints,” said Norm Ornstein, political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute (search).
“We’re sorry to see him go, but I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone,” said Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Ultimately, it won’t have a meaningful impact on the political composition of House.”
But not everyone is at peace with Hall’s decision.
“I think Ralph is going to regret his decision to buckle under the pressure,” charged Charles Soechting, chairman of the Texas State Democratic Party (search). “What disappointed me more than anything else is that he had such little faith in the fundamental principles of democracy and couldn’t fight for the party.”
Democratic and Republican candidates are lining up for the March 9 primaries to challenge Hall's re-election. While all acknowledge Hall’s popularity and years of dedicated service, they say change is overdue.
“I don’t think he has a long-term plan for staying in Congress at the age of 80, and I think we need new blood and new energy,” said Mike Mosher, a Republican attorney from Paris. “I think I am the man to do it.”
Conservatives like Mosher and businessman Mike Murphy, who is also running in the Republican primary, believe Hall hasn’t done enough to stand up for issues affecting the region, like the bleeding of jobs overseas or the need to cut taxes and fix Social Security.
“There are things that have been going around and around in Congress for the last 20 or 30 years and there just hasn’t been much progress,” said Murphy, who grew up in rural east Texas.
“There were forces in my own party who said I should sit this one out and not run, that it might mean risking my political future,” Murphy said. “If I wasn’t willing to fight for them out here, how can I fight for them in Washington D.C.?”
Jim Nickerson, who calls himself a “very, very conservative Democrat,” is also running for the seat. But Nickerson has nothing bad to say about Hall.
“Any personal attacks won’t be coming from me. I think he’s a very honorable man,” he said.
Nickerson said he is concerned, however, about the federal deficit as well as free trade agreements that he said has spurred job loss in the region.
Jerry Ashford, the other Democrat in the race, agrees. “I know what it's like to be laid off before Christmas,” he said. “We’ve had plant after plant close down. I think we need a housecleaning in both parties. People want a change.”
Political observers say the challenge these men face is daunting, given Hall’s solid re-election record. In 2002, he beat Republican John Graves 58 percent to 40 percent. This time, Hall will also have the full backing of the Republican Party and President Bush, whom Hall counts as a longtime friend.
Barton said opponents shouldn’t count out Hall's energy, either.
“With the number of years he’s been in office, his energy and his drive and willingness to serve is amazing,” he said.
But Hall won't take anything for granted, said spokeswoman Janet Perry Poppleton.
“He always said, 'There are two ways to run a race — unopposed or scared,'” Poppleton said. “While all indications are that he has good name recognition, there is still work to be done.”