Something had clearly gone wrong. It was the evening before Election Day, and I was standing in the shadow of Loop 610 in Houston in front of the strip mall headquarters of the tea party group known as the King Street Patriots. Amid the bustle of volunteers, I had managed to locate the group’s founder and president, Catherine Engelbrecht, a tall, comely German American, and she seemed amenable to letting me spend Election Day with her outfit, provided I call her attorney to make sure it was kosher. She handed me the number for Jennifer Grisham, of the Liberty Institute, in Plano. Grisham seemed pleasant enough too and promised to get back to me shortly, but now twenty minutes had gone by and no call back. Worse, the NFL-sized security guard at the door had suddenly told me to get off the sidewalk after impassively watching through his wraparound sunglasses as I chatted with volunteers for half an hour.
Finally I called Grisham again. “I think, under the circumstances, we’ll have to decline,” she said. After some hemming and hawing, she came to the point: I had been Googled, and the results were not favorable. The sticking point was a fellowship I had received in 2003 from the Open Society Institute, a George Soros organization. I might as well have enlisted in a satanic coven. Soros, the billionaire funder of progressive causes, is the devil to a certain kind of conservative. A single interview the next afternoon was the best they could offer me, and I was not to set foot inside the King Street offices; Engelbrecht would meet me at the barbecue joint next door.
In Engelbrecht’s defense, she had reason to be leery. She was fighting two lawsuits. The first was filed against the Patriots by the Texas Democratic Party, accusing the group of politicking on behalf of Republican candidates without first submitting to the proper registration and disclosure requirements. The second lawsuit was filed against her personally for allegedly defaming Fred Lewis, the director of Houston Votes, a voter registration drive that had, as it happened, been partially underwritten by Soros. Engelbrecht had declared war on Houston Votes after examining the group’s voter registration forms and finding thousands of errors—evidence, she suggested, of voter fraud. The King Street Patriots was one of several tea party groups that had selected voter fraud as its main organizing campaign leading up to the election. It proved itself by far the most effective, training hundreds of poll watchers and launching an initiative called True the Vote, which featured a well-produced, if somewhat inflammatory, video on its website of Engelbrecht warning of the dangers of stolen elections. The video, which twice cuts to throngs of people of color when the voice-over discusses fraud, has been labeled racist by a number of Houston Democrats. As an organizing tool, however, its value is obvious, and it has helped turn Engelbrecht into a grassroots heroine.
So it was perhaps appropriate that she arrived for our interview the next day with a handler of sorts: a pugnacious and burly 42-year-old former Justice Department attorney from Virginia named J. Christian Adams. A minor celebrity himself, Adams had quit the department in June to protest its handling of a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia and now marketed himself as a voter fraud consultant. Engelbrecht had her own beef with the New Black Panthers. Quanell X, the leader of the group’s Houston chapter, had warned that he would keep an eye on King Street’s poll watchers on Election Day. (“We will not tolerate any intimidation tactics coming from them against our elderly, our women, and our young people,” he told Houston’s Fox affiliate.) Adams seated himself next to Engelbrecht and leaned forward on his elbows. “We’ve got about fifteen minutes,” he announced.
The story of political awakening that Engelbrecht told me was so familiar in its themes and pivotal moments that she could have been reading from a tea party script. For most of her adult life, Engelbrecht, who lives in Fort Bend County and owns a manufacturing company with her husband, had tended to vote Republican but had considered herself an independent, though she was never particularly active politically. On the morning of February 19, 2009, she happened to be watching CNBC when business commentator Rick Santelli delivered a diatribe against President Barack Obama’s proposed bailout of the home mortgage industry. Santelli compared the bailout to Cuban communism and said that the Founding Fathers were rolling over in their graves. “It’s time for another tea party,” he shouted.
“Something in me said, ‘I get that,’ ” Engelbrecht recalled. “I get that sense that it’s just out of control, and we as citizens have got to engage and be accountable for the direction that we’re heading.” Six weeks later, on tax day, Engelbrecht took her husband and two kids to a rally in downtown Houston. “People were coming out of the skyscrapers, coming out of the law offices, the oil companies, and anything else that offices down there to join the rally. They were saying, ‘What is happening here?’ ”
What was happening in Houston was the same thing that was happening across the country: Distrust of the federal government and anxiety about the country’s direction were coalescing into a grassroots movement. There was no more-fertile ground for this blossoming than Texas, where at least two hundred tea party groups formed over the course of the next year. Some, such as the King Street Patriots, were highly organized, while others were little more than a couple of friends and an infrequently updated website. The sheer number of people inspired by the movement didn’t become fully evident until Election Day, when 47 percent of Texas voters told exit pollers that they supported the tea party—the highest rate in the country. Their turnout produced the kind of benchmark election—a Republican gain of 22 seats in the Texas House—that has the potential to profoundly change state