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.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) waves as he leaves after he addressed the Heritage Action for America's Conservative Policy Summit February 10, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Just how long are Ted Cruz's coattails in Texas?

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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.”

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.

“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. 

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