The Katrina Pierson Bubble Bursts


Above: Katrina Pierson

Katrina Pierson, the longtime tea party activist from Garland who’s challenging Dallas Republican Congressman Pete Sessions, is having a bad few weeks.

First, Pierson acknowledged that she had been arrested in 1997, when she was 20, for shoplifting at a Plano J.C. Penney’s—not, altogether, a big deal. Pierson’s talked a lot about how she’s turned her life around after a hardscrabble upbringing, and if anything, the arrest fit into her personal narrative. Then, Slate‘s Dave Weigel attended a Pierson campaign event and characterized her as a “long shot” who exemplified the emptiness of this year’s tea party challengers in Texas. Hurtful, maybe, but probably not a big deal either: Pierson’s potential voters probably aren’t huge Slate readers.

A bigger deal: On Sunday night, the Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock pointed out that Pierson received some $11,000 in unemployment benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission from January 2012 to November 2013—meaning she was receiving government support during a period in which she consulted for Ted Cruz’s senate campaign and was planning for her own run.

Pierson has been a hyperactive tea party organizer for years, doing countless media appearances and traveling extensively around the country to spread her message. When I first met her in the summer of 2011, she was teaching a darkly conspiratorial class on the United Nation’s “Agenda 21” at a meeting of the Waco Tea Party. Under the UN’s aegis, she told the frightened crowd, Americans would be forced into crowded apartment buildings, and UN-empowered block captains would be “given police power over your neighborhoods.”

When I asked about her activist career, she told me that when “you realize that you’ve been lied to your whole life, it’s an eye-opening experience.” To spread her message, she told me she’d taught classes in Florida, Iowa, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Washington D.C., and all over Texas. It was her full-time job. It had to be, she said, because “our time is limited.” Since then, she’s ramped up her activity. She’s a frequent guest on Fox News.

It’s hard not to think that more than a few of Pierson’s fellow conservatives might be bothered by the prospect that their tax dollars were subsidizing her full-time activism—they would certainly be furious if a Battleground Texas organizer did the same. I wouldn’t argue that the jobless should cease their political activity, but Pierson’s supporters might. Sessions, for his part, called a potential federal extension of unemployment benefits “immoral” just last week.

Pierson’s primary challenge to Sessions has been pretty much the only credible tea party primary challenge to an incumbent representative this cycle, so her failure to launch has really been something. Pierson has seemed to flounder, despite her ties to Ted Cruz’s 2012 campaign (and the endorsement of both Cruz’s father, Rafael, and Sarah Palin,) and her high profile in the activist community. She hasn’t been able to draw on the resources that might help make her candidacy viable—Sessions had accumulated over 20 times Pierson’s campaign cash at the end of January.

Sessions is conservative, make no mistake about it. But in his nearly two decades in Washington, he’s accumulated a thick layer of grime. He was an associate of both Jack Abramoff and Allen Stanford. In a comic example of congressional excess, Sessions once earmarked $1.6 million dollars for “dirigible research” by an Illinois company that employed a former aide as a lobbyist. (The company had no previous experience with dirigibles.)

With the right opponent, he could have been ripe for a challenge. You could tell a similar tale about other Texas candidates like Senator John Cornyn, or state Senator John Carona. Both might have been susceptible to a skillful, well-organized opponent—but they’ve faced chuckleheads. In 2014 the Texas tea party could maintain a lot of its hard-won gains, but fail to make advances in some of the highest-profile races. Could Pierson’s botched run be part of the movement’s high-water mark?