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Tea Party Strength Put To The Test In North Texas GOP Primary

Shelley Kofler
More than 300 tea party voters filled a Garland auditorium to hear candidates ask for their votes.

Across Texas, several incumbent Republicans are facing aggressive challengers in this year’s primary, and Ted Cruz is part of the reason why. 

His upset of David Dewhurst, the longtime lieutenant governor, in the 2012 U.S. Senate race has encouraged other tea party candidates to run for the first time. 

In the backyard of his Garland home, Ladd Stauffer is making a political contribution.  He’s building wooden frames to support congressional candidate Katrina Pierson’s yard signs.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Ladd Stauffer of Garland assembles yard signs for tea party candidate Katrina Pierson who is running against Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas.

“We put them on busy corners and try to get her name out there so people recognize her,” Stauffer explained as he screwed together the supports.

Pierson, 37, was a key campaign organizer for Cruz two years ago. Now she’s hoping tea party volunteers like Stauffer who supported Cruz will help her engineer an upset of Pete Sessions, who’s represented a Dallas-based district for 17 years.

On one of the coldest nights this month, with sleet in the forecast, more than 300 tea party backers filled a Garland auditorium to hear Pierson and other candidates ask for their votes. 

Sessions didn’t show up, so Pierson had the stage to herself as she, like Cruz, promised to fight establishment politicians and Obamacare.

“We should have been doing exactly what Ted Cruz did and taken the fight to the public. I am running because it’s past time for Republicans to go on offense in Washington,” Pierson said to audience applause.

Loyal volunteers vs. money

Pierson has some big, national tea party endorsements:  FreedomWorks; Sen. Cruz’ father, Rafael Cruz; and Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate. 

Pierson hopes that support and her grassroots network will make up for something she doesn’t have – money. At the end of January, Pierson had only $50,000 on hand.  Sessions had more than $1 million.

“We have a solid grassroots team of over 200 volunteers, 75 block walkers, 75 coordinators and we’re all over the district all day every day,” Pierson said.

But can a network of loyal, ideological volunteers overcome the big money divide? 

Ladd Stauffer’s wife, Barb, thinks so. She says tea party members are particularly fed up with long-serving officials who ignore voters once they’re elected.

“I think the tea party has a lot of influence,” Barb Stauffer said.

“We’ve tried to get our officials to hear us speak and hear our concerns and they keep telling us we don’t know what we’re talking about and that we’re not informed,” she complained.

These voters admit some of the Republican incumbents on their hit list will probably win reelection. That includes U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.  He drew their ire when he didn’t back Cruz’s filibuster to kill Obamacare.

A battle for the "soul of our state"

But they’ve thrown many other Republican races into question, including the reelection of State Rep. Angie Chen Button.

The Garland crowd began to stomp its feet when the three-term official from Richardson asked emotionally for their votes.

“OK, hold on. Listen to this,” Button shouted as she asked the crowd to give her “some respect.”

“I have been a conservative Republican all my life," she said. "I even flew to Scottsdale, Arizona, to visit with Barry Goldwater," the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 who lost to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
First time candidate and realestate developer Don Huffines faced off against incumbent Sen. John Carona of Dallas at a Garland tea party forum.

After more than two decades in Austin, State Sen. John Carona from Dallas also showed up at the Garland forum to face off with his tea party opponent, Don Huffines, a wealthy real estate developer .

Huffines frames the race as “an epic battle for the soul of our state,” as he calls Carona the most liberal Republican in the state legislature.

“Do you want a guy who has no solutions?” Huffines asked.  “He’s been there 23 years.”     

Carona talked about his accomplishments.

“I’ve advocated repeatedly for issues important to our tea party," Carona said. "As chairman of (the Texas Senate’s) Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, I secured the first allocation of money to put the first troops on the border."

But after spending more than $1.5 million to win reelection in the last six months of 2013, compared to his opponent’s $604,000, Carona admits he has a fight on his hands.

“I have a lot of support among tea party supporters but the tea party leadership really has targeted this race along with Ron Paul supporters," Carona said. "I represent traditional, conservative Republicans -- that’s what it’s all about. But, among some of these folks, that’s not enough."

Across Texas, tea party pressure has pushed nearly every Republican candidate further to the right on issues like controlling debt, limiting government and stopping illegal immigration. 

Whether incumbents lose their seats this primary -- as some did two years ago -- could depend on whether tea party volunteers can pull together for lesser-known and more modestly-funded candidates, or whether Cruz’s victory was unique.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.