GOP leaders snubbed Katrina Pierson in her House primary. Now they need her to pass school vouchers.

Katrina Pierson, who was at the time former President Donald Trump's 2020 Senior Campaign Adviser, greets the crowd during a Women for Trump Holiday Celebration at the Holiday Inn Tyler Conference Center in Tyler. Dec. 10, 2019. (Cara Campbell For The Texas Tribune, Cara Campbell For The Texas Tribune)

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Ahead of the March primary, Gov. Greg Abbott was raining cash on conservative candidates attempting to oust House Republicans who helped defeat his school voucher push in the last legislative session.

But not Katrina Pierson.

The former North Texas tea party leader didn't get a dime from the governor, even though she was running against one of his would-be targets: state Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall. Abbott stayed noticeably silent in that race, despite Pierson’s vociferous backing of vouchers and her high-profile stint as Donald Trump’s campaign spokesperson.

That quickly changed after the primary elections, which saw the defeat of six anti-voucher Republicans — just shy of the number needed to secure a pro-voucher majority in the House, according to Abbott’s math. That night, Pierson pushed Holland into a primary runoff, after narrowly leading their three-person race.

Two days later, Abbott rallied to her side.

Pierson, a onetime Abbott critic who worked to drive him from office just two years ago, now counts the governor among her key allies as she vies to unseat Holland in the May 28 overtime round for House District 33. The governor kicked off his runoff campaign tour with a rally for Pierson, and he is expected to draw from his multimillion-dollar war chest to support her, having already dropped $6 million on an array of March contests.

Pierson was the only GOP primary challenger to make it past the first round against an anti-voucher incumbent without support from Abbott, Trump, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, each of whom backed pro-voucher challengers in a number of other House contests.

Like Abbott, Patrick endorsed Pierson after the March 5 primary. She has yet to draw support from Trump or Cruz, however, a snub made all the more notable by her ties to both Republicans: Pierson was an early backer of Cruz’s 2012 Senate bid, stumping for the tea party upstart in her spare time before later establishing herself as the face of Trump’s campaign.

The hesitation among GOP power brokers to embrace Pierson’s campaign is a sign of her unsteady status within the party as her runoff emerges as one of the marquee battles over school vouchers. Pierson’s long-standing grassroots ties have won her fervent support among some who fought alongside her during the tea party days, but her reputation for throwing sharp elbows and publicly trashing powerful Republicans, including Abbott, has led others to keep her at arm’s length.

The governor’s move to back Pierson, meanwhile, reinforces that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get his signature issue across the finish line, even if it means vigorously supporting a candidate who savaged his record — and going to war with former allies like Holland, once praised by Abbott as a “conservative stalwart.” It is also a sign that Holland’s critics see him as more vulnerable than ever, after he failed to break 40% in the March primary. Pierson and her allies are hoping to seize on Holland’s own outspoken criticism of Trump, along with a handful of key votes he took last year, including his support for a gun control measure and the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Abbott, Cruz and Trump’s campaigns did not respond to questions about their endorsement decisions.

Pierson brushed off concerns about her lack of support from Trump or Cruz, pointing to endorsements she has landed from Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, along with the more recent backing of Abbott and Patrick.

“Everyone I have personally asked has endorsed my campaign,” Pierson said in an email. “Justin Holland is so desperate to hide his Never Trump actions that he is projecting them onto me.”

Ruffling feathers

Pierson, 47, has had a colorful run in state and national politics since she came onto the scene in the nascent days of the tea party, shortly after Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election win.

By the time Trump tapped Pierson as his top spokesperson in late 2015, she had already ruffled feathers in Texas GOP circles. Some of Cruz’s allies accused her of inflating the role she played as a volunteer for his Senate campaign and sidling up to Cruz when cameras were around — charges she dismissed as “sour grapes.” Pierson inflamed tensions with Cruzworld when, echoing Trump, she suggested Cruz was ineligible to run for president because he was born in Canada, despite having previously defended him on the issue.

Pierson has leaned into her bomb-throwing reputation, calling herself a “battled-tested conservative fighter” in campaign ads.

Trump supporters greet campaign surrogates and former campaign manager Brad Parscale, senior advisor Katrina Pierson and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during a bus tour stop in San Antonio on Sept. 3, 2020.

Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale, onetime campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are shown during a bus tour stop in San Antonio on Sept. 3, 2020. Credit: Christopher Lee for The Texas Tribune

She first sought elected office in 2014, waging an unsuccessful primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions in his then-Dallas district. The campaign shed light on Pierson’s turbulent upbringing, after a report turned up her 1997 arrest for shoplifting from a J.C. Penney in Plano. Pierson, who was 21 at the time, told The Dallas Morning News she had needed the clothes for a job interview and said the episode turned her life around. Born to a 15-year-old mother who depended on drugs and government assistance, Pierson became pregnant at the age of 19 and raised her son as a single mother.

Her story of overcoming obstacles helped fuel her rise in a tea party movement whose ripples are still playing out today, as a record number of House incumbents face ouster from insurgent candidates in Pierson’s mold. Her long-running grassroots ties have won her support from a number of leading hardline activist groups — though her candidacy has met a less-than-enthusiastic reception among others.

“Pierson is a nut case who has no business in elected office,” Austin-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak tweeted last year in response to a report that Pierson might run. When Pierson joined Trump’s campaign in 2015, Mackowiak — who has known Pierson since she volunteered for Cruz’s Senate campaign — also told Politico “there is no principle that she isn’t willing to abandon for the right price.”

Pierson is hoping her detractors will be outweighed by high-profile backers like Miller, the agriculture commissioner who, in endorsing Pierson earlier this year, said Trump “saw the talent and capability of Katrina Pierson early and made her an important part of his campaign and presidency,” adding that Texas “is lucky to have her now.”

Pierson has also won Abbott’s support despite having worked for the governor’s 2022 primary challenger, Don Huffines, who enlisted her as a campaign surrogate. In late 2021, Pierson delivered a scathing rebuke of Abbott, accusing him of “catering to Democrats” on COVID-19 policies and belatedly shifting to the right at Huffines’ behest.

“I, for one, am embarrassed that [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis is leading the fight for freedom in this country — it is embarrassing — while Greg Abbott does nothing,” Pierson told congregants at a church down the road from her native Forney, a boomtown of the Dallas suburbs.

Pierson, meanwhile, has had a mixed relationship with Trump and his orbit since the 2020 campaign. In the leadup to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Pierson reportedly worked behind the scenes to distance the president from prominent “Stop the Steal” figures such as Ali Alexander and Alex Jones who were initially expected to be a part of the preceding rally. In text messages from the day after the riot that were made public by congressional investigators in 2022, Pierson said she was glad to have worked to “keep the crazies off the stage” and “shield (Trump) from direct affiliation” with groups who led the march on the capitol.

She reiterated that stance last week. “I am President Trump's key witness for January 6th,” Pierson said in an email. ”The record shows that I protected the President and his family from the grifting troublemakers, which is why I remain on-call in the event that his legal team needs me to testify on the President’s behalf again.”

At the same time, Pierson has not displayed the sort of unwavering fealty that Trump typically demands. She has said Trump did “generational damage with COVID and [his support for] the vaccine” and failed to follow through on his campaign promise of “draining the swamp” in Washington, D.C. She also criticized Trump’s campaign for threatening to blackball GOP operatives who worked for DeSantis, Trump’s onetime presidential rival, and said it should be possible to support both Republicans “simultaneously.”

Trump has played an especially active role in down-ballot Texas primaries this year, endorsing 18 GOP legislative candidates, including eight challengers running against anti-voucher incumbents.

Even without Trump’s support, Pierson has featured her former boss heavily in her campaign, running digital ads that picture the two posing side by side under a tagline Pierson has also used in TV ads: “When you go to the polls to vote for President Trump, vote for Katrina Pierson.”

Holland under fire

Holland, a 40-year-old real estate broker and former Heath City Council member, is seeking a fifth two-year term in the House. The challenge from Pierson marks his first truly competitive primary since his initial run for the seat in 2016.

The Rockwall Republican provided much of the ammunition for Pierson’s campaign when he cast a handful of votes last year that angered the GOP’s grassroots base. His reelection bid poses a test of whether Texas Republicans can survive such perceived transgressions in an era when even the most strident partisans can see their careers unravel over a single issue.

Holland has also been openly critical of Trump in recent years, including when the former president jabbed at Texas Republicans who backed out of the NRA’s 2022 annual meeting in Houston, days after the Uvalde school shooting. Holland responded by tweeting that Trump “is out of touch and is not a true Statesman” and vowed not to support him again. He has also called for a new party leader “to restore the GOP to civility” and said Trump “is not welcome in Texas.”

Beyond Holland’s opposition to school vouchers, Pierson has zeroed in on two other key votes he took near the tail end of the 2023 regular session. Among them is Holland’s vote to impeach Paxton, which centered on allegations the attorney general accepted bribes and abused the power of his office to help a friend and campaign donor. Holland was one of 60 House Republicans — more than 70% of the chamber’s GOP contingent — who moved to impeach Paxton and suspend him from office; Paxton was later acquitted by the Senate.

State Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, speaks with a colleague on the House floor in Austin on April 18, 2023.

State Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, speaks with a colleague on the House floor in Austin on April 18, 2023. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Holland has also faced backlash from some GOP voters over his vote to advance a bill that would have raised the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles — specifically those with a caliber greater than .22 and capable of accepting a detachable magazine.

Supporters of the measure — which would have restricted access to such firearms for anyone younger than 21 — argued it might have thwarted the 2022 Uvalde school shooting, in which a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers using an AR-15-style rifle he bought shortly after turning 18. Critics said the measure ran afoul of the Constitution and would not have stopped criminals from accessing semi-automatic rifles.

In a surprise move, Holland and another Republican, state Rep. Sam Harless of Spring, joined with Democrats on a House committee to send the bill to the full chamber. It was an especially notable vote for Holland, who had authored a bill two years earlier that made Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state” — essentially making it harder for federal officials to enforce new gun control measures. Holland also voted that year for a law that allows Texans to carry handguns without a license or training — a measure that, he noted, only applies to people 21 and older.

Holland said he knew the gun vote would earn him some grief, but he felt obligated to support the bill after listening to hours of testimony that convinced him it was “a reasonable proposal.”

“I definitely think it has caused me some issues, in terms of people who maybe were supporters and couldn't get past it. And I respect them for that,” Holland said. “Ultimately, I'm the one that has to sleep at night whenever I take a vote, and I take all my votes on principle and not political expediency. And I think that that's what that came down to.”

Abbott criticized Holland over the gun vote this year, posting on social media that he had “voted against gun rights” and “voted to put Democrats in leadership positions” — a nod to Holland’s support for House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont. Phelan, who faces a runoff of his own, has continued the tradition of appointing Democrats to chair some committees, despite pressure from the right to nix the practice.

Holland noted that Abbott’s criticism came the day after he announced his endorsement of Harless, who also voted to advance the raise-the-age gun bill and supported Phelan for speaker. Unlike Holland, though, Harless voted against stripping a voucher proposal from a broader education funding bill last fall, the vote that effectively doomed Abbott’s voucher bid.

Holland said he is “not mad” at Abbott, though he added, “there's just no consistency to the way that the man has behaved.” He said the governor’s scorched-earth approach to the primaries has soured his relationship with any Republican members who survive the purge.

“He just doesn't seem to be behaving like somebody that expects to be the governor next session, because you have to work with members,” Holland said, noting that Abbott has been floated as a potential Trump running mate or Cabinet official. “After it's all said and done, and the dust settles, it's difficult to visualize how next session might work, with a lot of the members that do come back."

Abbott has found a pair of deep-pocketed allies in his quest to unseat Holland and other anti-voucher lawmakers, including AFC Victory Fund, a super PAC affiliated with the pro-voucher American Federation for Children. The group has spent more than $280,000 on online ads and mailers attacking Holland and supporting Pierson. Another committee, Club for Growth Action, has reserved $4 million worth of TV ads to target Holland and four other Republicans, with half the money slotted for the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

The spending has prompted Holland to run his own ads swiping at Pierson for her support from “TikTok billionaire” Jeff Yass, the Pennsylvania-based GOP megadonor whose priority issues include school vouchers. Though Yass — who owns a stake in TikTok’s parent company — has not donated directly to Pierson’s campaign, he has given $5.7 million to the American Federation for Children-linked super PAC, more than half its funding this cycle. He also made a $6 million donation to Abbott last year and gave $16 million to Club for Growth Action.

Holland alleged that Pierson would be “a puppet for the people that are trying to buy her vote right now” and said her lack of experience in elected office casts uncertainty on how she would vote in Austin.

“Her best quality is that she's a talented communicator,” Holland said. “When she talks in front of a crowd, she doesn't really scratch the surface on anything, doesn't ever really directly answer questions about policy. She just kind of answers the way she was trained to talk on TV.”

Pierson noted that Yass “has not contributed a penny to my campaign” and said Holland’s “puppet” attack was an attempt to deflect from his own donors, who include Charles Butt, the H-E-B grocery store chairman who backs Republicans opposed to school vouchers. She also bashed him for accepting support from a casino PAC pushing to legalize gambling in Texas.

“My opponent’s campaign contributions are far more concerning,” Pierson said.

Robert Downen contributed to this report.

Disclosure: H-E-B and Politico have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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