ROCKWALL, Texas (AP) — When he was a boy and working in a pharmacy in this town east of Dallas, Ralph Hall once sold cigarettes and Coca-Cola to Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious bank robbers who would later die in a hail of lawmen gunfire.
Now 90 and the oldest-ever member of the U.S. House, Hall is facing a potential political shootout of his own — against a Republican primary challenger barely half his age, backed by national conservative groups and well-schooled in digital- and data-heavy modern campaigning.
It's shaping up to be a test of whether old-style, face-to-face campaigning can prevail against the new election engineering and organizational techniques that are coming to dominate American politics. Is Hall's vast political experience still an asset or simply proof he's out of touch with today's conservatives?
"I'm doing the same thing that I've always done," the 17-term incumbent said amid a "Band of Brothers" happy hour at a Rockwall country club. Most Friday afternoons, Hall, who flew Hellcat fighters during World War II, hops a plane from Washington to Texas, then heads straight to the weekly gathering of U.S. military veterans.
That routine may no longer be enough. Hall's district is safely Republican but he captured just 45 percent of the vote against five challengers in last month's primary, and has been forced into his first runoff since being elected to Congress in 1980. His opponent, 48-year-old former U.S. attorney John Ratcliffe, won 29 percent and has been endorsed by powerful tea-party-aligned organizations, including the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, who see Ratcliffe as the race's only true conservative.
A former mayor of the town of Heath, Ratcliffe said he knows he's challenging an institution in the district of big-city suburbs and small towns that stretches to the Louisiana and Arkansas borders.