The Tea Party in Texas Doesn’t Have Much Left Beyond Ted Cruz’s Name

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 21 2014 7:13 PM

Weak Tea

In Texas, the Tea Party doesn’t have much beyond Sen. Ted Cruz’s name and a long shot for Congress.

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Indeed, she’s been a steady presence on Fox News and Fox Business, tapped to comment on divergent issues within the rubrics of “black issues” and “things that might anger the Tea Party.” Her commentary on the gauche commercialization of MLK Day by brick-and-mortar businesses: “You know, it’s a free market capitalistic society, and I applaud them.” On the abuses of the National Security Agency and the deep state: “How many congressmen have gone home to their constituencies and told them about the automatic biometric identification system that went into place in 2012?”

That did not happen, but Fox Business host Neil Cavuto was a perfect gentleman, and didn’t press the point. Some of Pierson’s appeal is visceral, personal, and she spends much of her speech describing how she clawed out of poverty and overcame tragedy, from laying with her grandmother when she was killed by a botched operation to finishing a college paper after her computer caught fire and deleted it.

This campaign hasn’t taken off like FreedomWorks wanted it to. Pierson’s raised $76,000, a bit more than 5 percent as much as Sessions and a fraction of what Cruz raised before winning his race. Pierson, like the people in this room, believe that a politician like Sessions has adapted too well to a norm that should be unconscionable. That’s clear throughout the night, from when a voter tells me that her Vietnamese friends have planned to commit mass suicide when America finally goes Communist to when Broden, the radio host, waves a Constitution in the air and demands the end of the Obama regime.

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“When you read ‘impeachable offenses,’ and you read about ‘treason,’ and you read about ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’—How many of you know it’s a high crime to violate the Constitution?” The crowd murmurs in disgusted agreement. “This administration has done it repeatedly!”

Sessions, they say, has become complicit. Voter after voter says that the Benghazi attacks of 2012 should disqualify him from re-election. He runs the rules committee; he has not moved a bill that would create a special investigative committee. Pierson wants that committee yesterday, and doesn’t believe Sessions’ reasons for spiking it. Can Republicans wait two years and use Benghazi against Hillary Clinton? No. They can’t risk it. “Do the Clintons ever let a witness survive?”

Pierson’s speech wraps after 45 minutes. The crowd takes its sweet time to exit. At worst, they’re meeting and sharing ideas with a future Republican star; at best they’re meeting with their next congresswoman. Ted Cruz won, and so can she.

“It’s just like Nixon said,” says Mike Wallis. “I firmly believe there’s that silent majority. Most Americans believe the same way, and they have the same core values. You just have to get to everybody, get ’em energized, and I think we can have another landslide like we did in 2010. The big thing they say about Cruz is that he has no plan for success. Of course not! But he fought. And when you fight, you prove there’s a fight to be had.”

Two days later, I catch up with Cruz at a speech in Beaumont, the place where the Texas oil rush began. Cruz’s exact destination is the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, a barns-and-surreys recreation, where he can speak about his new energy bill between a podium and an antique oil well. After the speech, he takes a few questions and I ask him about Pierson and Paxton and the rest of the candidates copping his likeness for their campaign ads.

“Both Katrina and Ken are people I’ve worked with a long time,” says Cruz. “I know them, I respect and admire them, and I’ve said so publicly. The fact that some candidates have chosen to reference that—you know, what I think that’s an acknowledgment of is the energy and the passion from the grassroots. I think that’s seen as a sign from a candidate that they’re going to listen to the grassroots as well. And I think every candidate should be held accountable by the grassroots. I think that dynamic is a very positive one. It’s certainly a reality in Texas and beyond.”

Half a dozen cameras are on hand to capture this. Dozens of people are there to listen and ask Cruz to speak at their local party events. Sen. John Cornyn, who’s actually on the ballot in a couple of weeks, hasn’t been getting anything like this kind of attention, or these kinds of questions. One local TV reporter hounds Cruz on the way out to ask him, “Are you gonna go for it? Are you gonna run in 2016?”

Cruz doesn’t answer that question, though he gets it all the time. It’s five years since the Tea Party started and the movement sees no limit to what it can achieve, or who it can force out of politics. A few hours later, Sarah Palin endorses Katrina Pierson for Congress.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.