The influence of the Tea Party has made its mark in Montgomery County over the last five years. The Woodland-based Texas Patriots PAC has successfully provided candidates it endorses and recommends with a boost to win elections since 2012 and provided another slate of recommendations prior to the recent March 1 primary election.
“You have the most influence when you work in the smallest district area,” Patriots PAC President Julie Turner said. “You have to build a farm team—like baseball players do—and get people locally who do a good job in office. Then you can say, ‘Good job, you deserve a promotion and can take on more responsibility.’”
Although the local Tea Party group has been successful in mobilizing residents to the polls, it has not been without criticism. Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said when the Patriots PAC and the Tea Party came into the county, they gained ground and became powerful quickly.
“They want to control what goes on in Montgomery County—it defies equal representation to me,” he said.
State Rep. Cecil Bell, Jr., R-Magnolia, received an endorsement from the Patriots PAC in 2012 during the Republican primary and won the race by earning 54 percent of the vote. He said while an endorsement from the Tea Party can be helpful to a campaign, it does not guarantee that a candidate will win.
That was the case for two other local candidates in recent years: County Judge Craig Doyal and Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley. Neither Doyal nor Riley received support from the Patriots PAC in the March 2014 Republican primary, but both ultimately won their respective races in runoffs.
“While some of our Tea Parties do get more attention, they all have an impact on our elections,” Bell said. “Any time our Tea Parties endorse you, it is an advantage, especially in a community like Montgomery County where voters are very active. I think it helped [when I was endorsed, but] our citizens are pretty knowledgeable and weigh their vote[s] by more than just an endorsement.”
Although the Tea Party has laid down roots across Texas and the U.S., there are areas in which groups are more active than others, including Montgomery County, said Mark Jones, political scientist with Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“If you ask people where the two strongholds of the Tea Party movement are in Texas, many would point to Tarrant County first and Montgomery County second as the two epicenters,” Jones said.
Prior to the 2012 statewide primary, the Patriots PAC created its first voter guide featuring endorsements and recommendations for each of the statewide, Montgomery County and The Woodlands Township races. The Patriots PAC meets with candidates prior to making recommendations, Turner said, and selects individuals who meet its core values: a belief in a limited constitutional view of government and the use of free markets.
“We made recommendations for the person who was the most conservative and had the best path to victory,” she said. “We are very serious about [candidates] having their act together in campaigns. It is not our job to win a race for a candidate—we ask people how they are going to win the race.”
The PAC’s longest winning streak involves local bond issues. It supported Montgomery County’s November road bond, which was approved months after the group opposed the May road bond, which was voted down. The PAC was not in favor of the May bond due in part to the inclusion of a proposed Woodlands Parkway extension.
“Some capital projects deserve bonds,” Turner said. “Debt is not in and of itself a bad thing. There’s a good use for debt; it just needs to be used on things that can be paid off before the project fails and has to be redone.”
Walter Wilkerson, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, said he knows many people rely on the Tea Party’s recommendations, but he has never believed in endorsements.
“Our local party has a bylaw that prohibits us from endorsing a candidate or issue on the ballot,” he said. “I’ve long felt that creates more difficulties for the unification of the conservative Republican Party in the long run.”
During campaigns, representatives from the Patriots PAC are present at voting locations in The Woodlands area beginning with early voting through election day, offering their recommendations to voters, Turner said.
“We staff those polls so people can talk about the candidates and the issues,” she said. “We want them to make an informed decision. It’s a guide, so no one is forcing you to vote one way. It’s what we think, and we’re trying to share the benefit of the time we have spent with those candidates and our experience on the issues.”
Although the Tea Party groups in Montgomery County are effective in distributing information, it is still the responsibility of voters to research issues before casting their ballots, Bell said.
“We should be informed, engaged voters, which means we need to do our own homework,” he said. “We can use that [distributed] information as a starting point—and it may be the soundest information we have—but it’s still our obligation to work through all that information.”
If one group stays entrenched in one part of the spectrum, and the rest of the spectrum does not vote, that organization will continue to control elections, said Rob Eissler, former District 15 state representative who served for 10 years. He was defeated by Steve Toth, who was endorsed by the Patriots PAC, in the May 2012 primary election.
“There are people who say, ‘I’m mad at Washington, too, and I know the Tea Party is against what’s happening so I want what they want,’ without doing their own vetting,” Eissler said. “The business community should get more involved and see what kind of candidates there are—both endorsed and not endorsed by the Tea Party.”
In Montgomery County, about 280,000 of nearly 500,000 residents are registered to vote. However, voter turnout is low: 43,510 individuals voted in the March 2014 primary election.
“In Texas, the power is not decided in November in the general election but the Republican primary in the spring,” Jones said. “In low participation elections, mobilizing supporters and getting them to the polls is important. The Tea Party groups have excelled at mobilizing the base and numbers of active citizens who take [the Tea Party’s] information and voting cues.”
In local races, a voting block of 3,000 or 4,000 people is hard to overcome, Eissler said.
“In the race to be the most conservative, the Tea Party wants to support the person who is most like them,” he said.
Bruce Barnes, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, said not voting is a prescription for apathy.
“Democrats say there’s no use for us to vote because the primary picks the elected officials, and Republicans say it’s no use to vote because the Tea Party is more powerful and will get people elected,” he said. “That leaves the Tea Party to go out there and say, ‘We want this guy and this guy, and gets them elected.’”
Meador said people need to get involved in the voting process again and become informed and educated.
“Lives are busy now. People are raising their families and working in Houston,” he said. “You leave before daylight and you get home after dark. You get kind of out of touch with local happenings whether it be city or county.”
The Tea Party movement can ultimately be described as a phenomenon, Eissler said, run by supercharged and committed individuals.
“If democracy is going to survive, we need every citizen to have the same enthusiasm and commitment and education on the issues,” Eissler said. “In that regard, it’s been a good [phenomenon]. If people are satisfied with the candidates the Tea Party chooses for them, then everything is fine. But that’s not been my experience.”
Additional reporting by Wendy Cawthon and Jesse Mendoza