BEAUMONT, Texas—On the night before early voting began in Texas, a few hundred conservatives gather in a Dallas Hilton ballroom to pray for victory. They start arriving at 5:30 p.m., some of them buying hotel-priced beverages from a pop-up bar, some of them moving immediately to the tables where they can sign up to help Katrina Pierson get elected to Congress.
I pick up a door-hanger, one of thousands that will be deployed over the next week. It’s like a Bayeux Tapestry of Tea Party history. There’s the candidate, and beneath her are celebrities outdoing each other with superlatives for Pierson. She’s “utterly fearless,” (Sen. Ted Cruz), “a friend of America” (blogger Michelle Malkin), “a strict constitutionalist” (Rafael Cruz, the senator’s dad), and she “doesn’t care what’s politically correct” (Joe the Plumber). The other people who’ve shown up, all supporters of the candidate, are picking up campaign buttons and chatting about the 11th hour dredging-up of her 1997 arrest for shoplifting.
“She’s always told the truth about that.”
“Look what she’s done with her life! Can you say redemption?”
If there’s one test for the Tea Party on the Texas ballot this year, it’s here—it’s Pierson versus Sessions. And the gathering tonight has all the trappings of a classic 9–12 meeting, from back when Glenn Beck still had an afternoon hour on Fox News. Shortly after 6:15 p.m., a MacBook is plugged into a projector. An image of a waving American and Texas flag pops up on a portable screen. We pledge allegiance to one flag, then the other, and then comes the invocation, all of it raising the “meet and greet”—Pierson’s 40th campaign event, she thinks—to the heights of solemnity.
“We ask for your anointing to be on Katrina, father,” says Stephen Broden, a black conservative radio host who’d run for Congress four years earlier. “Help her to articulate and to be the voice of the constitutionalists in this state. We ask that those who are here will come not merely to observe, but to participate.”
Pierson, clad in a white dress and black fur wrap that people kept complimenting, bows her head. She’s been running for five months, challenging incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions with the backing of national and local Tea Party groups. For years she worked as a hospital administrator who founded the Tea Party in Garland, a midsized city in the district; she went on to campaign for Cruz, jumping the bandwagon before the wheels were attached.
“Isn’t it interesting,” asks the evening’s emcee, a Republican activist named Russell Ramsland, “how many people now say they donated to Ted Cruz before the primary? And yet there’s no record of their donations.”
Pierson passes that litmus test, no sweat. “I left the hospital, lived on my life savings—which will be gone really soon—to help elect Sen. Ted Cruz,” she says. She speaks slowly and deliberately, with a sort of suspense, as if she’s daring someone to leap up and interrupt her. “When he won, we were happy, but crying, because everybody else lost.”
Sessions had led the Republican campaign to take over the House, and it was hard to argue that he did that poorly. But he wasn’t a Tea Partier, and he wasn’t a star, and he wasn’t trustworthy—not as far as the right could tell.
“He’s pretty condescending,” says Mike Wallis, a businessman who planned to take two weeks off to get out the vote for Pierson. Wallis had listened to Sessions, in March 2013, repeat the Republican line that sequestration would put pressure on the president to cut a health care deal. “I was like, OK, he’s a professional politician. But then Obama comes in, waves a magic wand, pays 75 percent of their health care costs, blows through the sequester. Sure, now he votes against the debt ceiling, because he’s got to mollify the electorate in Dallas. He wouldn’t do that if no one was running.”
Exactly—Pierson was running to be everything Sessions couldn’t. It’s five years exactly since the Tea Party movement began, since CNBC commentator Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade and decried plans to bail out the mortgages of “losers.” And it had been less than two years since Cruz defeated Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a primary runoff for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. The Cruz win was a moon-shot moment, something you hear local Tea Partiers refer to constantly, proof that the establishment can be crippled by a well-timed kidney punch. This race isn’t going as well, not nearly, but it’s the race they’ve got.
“This particular race can really set the tone for the remainder of the 2014 cycle,” Pierson says. “We’re the first in the nation. All those other races? Months away. When grassroots, in the stronghold of Karl Rove’s district, oust the sitting chairman of the rules committee—self-proclaimed John Boehner’s guy—we are going to have so much clout.”
This year’s Republican candidates are clinging to the Cruz name like it’s the last life raft on a sinking yacht. Ken Paxton, a conservative running for attorney general, has bought TV ads that consist entirely of Cruz talking about him. Dan Branch, his chief opponent, has countered with endorsements from Cruz’s legal advisers and reminders that he and Cruz “fought religious discrimination and defended my moment of silence law.”
Pierson’s claim on the Cruz brand is more intimate. Nanoseconds after she announced for Congress, she was endorsed by FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based Tea Party powerhouse. FreedomWorks has warred for its own Cruz pixie dust—when Sen. John Cornyn’s campaign hired the group’s old grassroots coordinator Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks insisted that he “was not in charge of our political efforts in 2010 or 2012.”
Steinhauser strayed, at least in the view of FreedomWorks. Pierson did not. She’s a pure Tea Partier, one of the shrinking group of conservative activists who gained unimagined political stardom, compared to the average freshman congressman, thanks to media interest in the movement, especially from Fox News. She’s biracial, which she insists will drive the left batty when (never “if”) she wins. “You could call me a racist,” she says. “Good luck with that! You could say I’m out there pushing the war on women. Good luck with that, too.”
What does she want to do with this clout? “My legislative priorities will definitively be the Constitution,” she says, somewhat confusingly. “That’s what I’ve been on Fox News for the last five years for, and I’ll fight for it every way I can.”