Politics

01.21.14

Tea Party Tests Its Might in Texas by Opposing Conservative Rep. Pete Sessions

Rep. Pete Sessions is one of the most conservative members of the House. Now he’s being challenged by Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson in a race that may show just how far right the Lone Star state will go.

In 1994, campaigning for Congress against a Democratic incumbent, Pete Sessions drove across rural Texas with a trailer full of horse manure. A sign was attached stating, “The Clinton health care plan stinks worse than this trailer.” Sessions narrowly lost that election by 4,000 votes. Two years later, with the seat open, the Texas Republican ran again and won.

Since then, Sessions has established himself as a fixture in the Republican leadership. He ran the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in 2010 when the GOP took back the House, and he has since become chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. But now, after 20 years, nine terms in Congress, and another Democratic proposal to overhaul healthcare after his “manure tour,” Sessions is under attack for being insufficiently conservative and facing a Tea Party primary.

With his white hair, navy blue suit, and soft Texas accent, the dapper Sessions looked and sounded like someone sent from central casting to play a generic Republican congressman when The Daily Beast talked to him outside the House Chamber last Wednesday. Bragging about his conservative bona fides, Sessions said that he was the most “consistently conservative” member of the House and that when it came to deficit reduction, he was “at the top of the heap.”

But to his Republican primary opponent, Katrina Pierson, 37, an African American Tea Party activist, Sessions is “a big part of the problem” in Washington, D.C., who is always “waving the white flag.”

Pierson, who spoke to The Daily Beast on the phone last Friday, was passionate and articulate in describing her agenda. She seemed resolutely on message, quoting Ronald Reagan with such frequency that it almost bordered on being a verbal tic.

She railed against the omnibus budget deal that just passed Congress. She said that by voting for it, Sessions voted with Nancy Pelosi to increase spending and against his fellow North Texas Republicans. The Tea Party activist also rattled off a list of government agencies that she described as a threat to liberty, including the NSA, DOJ, IRS, and EPA. When asked about Obama’s speech on the National Security Agency earlier in the day, Pierson said she hadn’t heard it, but she was still “pretty sure he didn’t go far enough.”

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Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) leaves Speaker Boehner's office after a meeting amongst Republican House leadership at the Capitol Building on October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

The Tea Party candidate said that she had decided to run because Sessions supported the farm bill and because he “used his power to block [efforts] to defund Obamacare.” (Sessions has repeatedly voted against Obamacare and was one of 144 Republicans to oppose the compromise to end the government shutdown in October.) Pierson also criticized Sessions, claiming that his campaign contributions come from PACs and lobbyists, not individual donors and constituents. However, Pierson hedged on the issue of taking PAC or lobbyist money herself, saying “it depends on the PAC.”

The Sessions-Pierson race will be the Lone Star state’s most competitive struggle between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party.

In contrast to Pierson’s ideological purity, Sessions was far more pragmatic. In his opinion, the differences between him and his Tea Party opponent were mostly “stylistic.” It’s “whether you vote no on everything or whether you recognize you’re in the majority and if you vote no, you don’t change Barack Obama [and] you don’t change things. You have to be for something.” Whereas Pierson attacked House Republicans for “capitulating” since retaking the majority in 2010, Sessions seemed reasonably proud of Speaker John Boehner’s accomplishments. “Our agenda is what got us sequestration,” he said. “Our agenda is what got us and will get us billions of dollars cut in welfare and food stamps and other things, [and] our agenda is the one [that] moves our country forward.” The Texas congressman conceded that “nothing is perfect.”

In contrast to Pierson’s attacks on “Republicans who failed to keep their promises” and “wave the white flag,” Sessions seemed to have friendly words even for Democrats. During the interview, the Texas congressman greeted Gregory Meeks, a liberal African-American congressman from Queens, who was walking by. Sessions joked, “I was endorsed by a Democrat from New York yesterday.” Meeks responded jocularly, “Whatever you need, I’ll endorse you or run against you, whatever helps.”

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Katrina Pierson. (KatrinaForCongress)

Meeks probably won’t need to do much to ensure a Sessions victory. His district, Texas’s 32nd, isn’t favorable turf for a Tea Party uprising. It includes most of well-to-do North Dallas, including George W. Bush’s mansion in the affluent enclave of Preston Hollow. Further, the incumbent has far outraised his opponent. Sessions had $1.3 million cash on hand, as of the most recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) reporting deadline, while Pierson had raised only had $33,000 (although she told the Dallas Morning News that she expects to raise $70,000 by the time of her next report. While Pierson does have some outside supporters, including the conservative group Freedom Works, commentator Michelle Malkin, and Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, that likely won’t be enough to overcome Sessions.

The margin, though, should serve as a test of the continued strength of Tea Party fervor in Texas. Pierson was an early supporter of Ted Cruz, who recently praised her as “utterly fearless”. While Cruz isn’t joining his father in backing Pierson, his professed neutrality in the race does not exactly measure up to the scrupulous standards of the Swiss. With a vaunted Tea Party challenge to Sen. John Cornyn fizzling into farce, the Sessions-Pierson race will be the Lone Star state’s most competitive struggle between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party.

But, even if Pierson loses, it doesn’t mean she’ll disappear from the political stage. It took Sessions three tries to eventually get elected to Congress, and the Tea Party activist seems just as patient. After all, she’s already keeping careful track of her media coverage, telling The Daily Beast, “I hope to keep you on the good list and not on the bad list.”