On Aug. 4, 2019, the day after a gunman who had posted a hateful diatribe against Hispanics fatally shot 23 people at an El Paso Walmart, a leader of a tea party group in Texas said on Facebook, “You’re not going to demographically replace a once proud, strong people without getting blow-back.”
His wife, the founder of the group, in the Fort Worth suburbs of Tarrant County, added in a comment: “I don’t condone the actions, but I certainly understand where they came from.”
Ten days later, amid a brewing backlash over the comments by Fred and Julie McCarty, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party posted an undated testimonial from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wishing the group a happy 10th anniversary as it rebranded itself as True Texas Project.
“Thank you for the incredible work you do,” Cruz said, in the only on-camera endorsement from an elected official posted on the group’s Facebook and YouTube pages to mark the occasion. “Julie, Fred, thank you for your passion.”
A Washington Post review of True Texas Project’s activities and social media shows that Cruz has continued to embrace the group, even as its nativist rhetoric and divisive tactics have alienated some other conservative elected officials. Cruz’s father, a frequent campaign surrogate for his son, spoke at a meeting of the group shortly after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, at a time when the group’s leadership was defending the pro-Trump mob on social media.
A spokeswoman did not respond to a request for an interview with the senator or to specific questions about TTP. “The Senator is not aware of every tweet, post, or comment of activists in the state of Texas,” the spokeswoman, Erin Perrine, said in a statement. “If you want to know what he thinks on any issue – feel free to look at his decades-long record. Sen. Cruz is unequivocal in his denunciation of any form of racism, hatred, or bigotry.”
In 2019, Cruz condemned the El Paso shooting as “a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.” The gunman’s manifesto had railed against a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and many of those killed or wounded were Hispanic.
Cruz’s ongoing ties to TTP contrast with the group’s fraught relationship with much of the Republican establishment in Texas. The group has lashed out at Republicans it perceives as too moderate – including Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott – and has backed candidates against officeholders it once helped elect. “We are not here to be best buddies with our electeds,” Julie McCarty says in a recruitment video.
In a sign that some conservatives continue to court the group’s support, Attorney General Ken Paxton, R, attended a TTP fundraiser last week, an event that drew hundreds of people according to pictures posted on social media. But many elected officials are no longer active with the group, according to Rick Barnes, chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party.
“We’ve got to accept that to grow the Republican Party, we can’t be using rhetoric that most people find offensive,” Barnes said.
James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said Cruz appears to have “turned a blind eye” to the group’s most extreme rhetoric. Many Cruz supporters would not view the group’s messaging as racist, he added.
“From a political standpoint, there probably isn’t a downside for him supporting this group because they represent a large segment of the Republican Party in Texas,” he said. “So Cruz sees no downside, but he does see the upside because they have organization and can bring votes.”
Fred McCarty, the president of the group’s PAC, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Julie McCarty, the group’s chief executive, initially agreed to speak with a Post reporter, but then did not answer the phone at the scheduled time and did not respond to subsequent calls and emails.
In a recent TTP newsletter, Julie McCarty said The Post was writing a “hit piece” and urged members not to talk to the newspaper. “The truth is, our reputation and integrity stands for itself,” she wrote.
Like many of the tea party organizations that sprung up during President Barack Obama’s first term, the group in North Texas initially crusaded against federal spending and government overreach, particularly “Obamacare,” as critics dubbed the president’s signature health-care legislation.
In 2012, the group supported Cruz – who had never been elected to public office – over the sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, R, in a race for an open Senate seat. Cruz won, and the group became a must-stop for Republican politicians courting the right.
Late that year, then-Gov. Rick Perry, R, used the group’s meeting just days after the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school to affirm his support for allowing teachers to carry weapons. Abbott spoke to the group twice in 2013, first as attorney general and later as a gubernatorial candidate.
An appearance by Dewhurst in 2013 drew headlines when he called for Obama’s impeachment. One of the group’s former vice presidents – backed by Cruz – won election to the state Senate in 2014. In early 2016, then-presidential candidate Ben Carson spoke at the group’s town hall meeting. The Northeast Tarrant Tea Party was widely hailed as one of the most powerful tea party groups in Texas before the 2016 election.
The group avidly supported much of President Donald Trump’s agenda, including his campaign vow to build a wall along the nation’s southern border and his false claims of voter fraud after last year’s election. But when Trump proposed giving Black-owned businesses access to $500 billion in capital in the fall of 2020, Julie McCarty wrote on the group’s Facebook: “Is anyone beside me disgusted by this? 500 BILLION FREAKING DOLLARS??? White people need not apply.”
During Trump’s presidency, several of the group’s closest allies in the state legislature either lost reelection bids or decided not to seek new terms. Donations to TTP’s political committee sunk to roughly $4,200 last year, having peaked at over $150,000 in 2015, records show. The IRS requires nonprofits to make annual returns available to the public, but Julie McCarty declined The Post’s request for the latest filing for its tax-exempt arm, which pays for most of its activities, according to its website.
Even as tea party activity nationwide was eclipsed by Trump’s “Make American Great Again” movement, Cruz maintained ties with the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.
In early 2017, Julie McCarty boasted about being among a group of conservative activists who won a private audience with Cruz. “He said all he knows to do is to ‘get up every day and keep fighting.’ Awww, I love that!” she wrote on Facebook.
In September 2017, Cruz spoke to the group for more than an hour and received a standing ovation. He thanked Julie McCarty for her “incredible leadership” and told the crowd, “Each and every one of you is making an incredible impact.” Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, won applause for emphasizing his opposition to amnesty for children brought illegally to the United States by their parents.
In 2018, the group organized a get-out-the-vote event with the Cruz campaign. The McCartys had their picture taken with him and Vice President Mike Pence that year at a prominent Republican donor’s home in the Dallas area, a Facebook post shows.
As Trump’s presidency normalized and elevated far-right, anti-immigrant voices, TTP’s messaging grew more extreme, at times echoing white-supremacist talking points.
“Imagine flooding a place with foreign peoples to the point that the native population will become a minority,” Fred McCarty wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post, four days after the El Paso shooting. “Then imagine being shocked at the strife and hostility that results. Imagine.”
At the time, one of the only well-known Republicans to publicly criticize McCarty was a former TTP ally: political consultant Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the GOP in the Austin area.
“Fred McCarty made an outrageous statement in 2019, and as a local GOP official concerned about the image of the party, I spoke out,” he said in a recent interview. “The backlash from some members of that organization was intense and threatening. It doesn’t scare me at all, but I can understand why some elected officials don’t want to invite that kind of feedback.”
One Republican state lawmaker who used to engage with the group said it has “gone off the deep end” and described its efforts to launch chapters in other counties as “dangerous.” The lawmaker spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of political repercussions, saying, “If you disagree with them, there is hell to pay.”
Amid last summer’s protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Julie McCarty said on the group’s public Facebook account run by her husband: “We can love black people all day long – all decade long – all our lives long . . . and that will not stop them looting and destroying and feeling justified in doing so.”
In a September Facebook post, as National Football League players wore decals bearing the names of victims of racism and police brutality, the group asked, “Why are NFL players wearing names of felons & rapists on their helmets when they already have them on their jerseys?”
Less than two months later, Julie McCarty tweeted a photo of Cruz holding the group’s T-shirt. “Senator @tedcruz took notice of @TrueTXProject, liked what he saw, and asked one of his team to get him a tshirt. How great is that?” she asked.
The Cruz T-shirt photo is also posted on the TTP Instagram, but was deleted from the Facebook page after The Post asked the group about its ties to elected officials. The deleted post said, “Hey, if Ted Cruz is wearing our shirt, don’t you want one too?”
Barnes, chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party, said officeholders may be more inclined to hold local Republican leaders accountable for offensive comments than an independent group.
“If the True Texas Project was a recognized Republican club, we would definitely be having conversations about it,” Barnes said.
Cruz himself criticized a local GOP leader who, in the days after Floyd’s death, posted a graphic on Facebook that juxtaposed a Martin Luther King Jr. quote with a banana. “Dammit, stop it. Stop saying stupid, racist things,” Cruz tweeted.
About two weeks before the deadly Jan. 6 riot, the TTP posted a diagram on Facebook of a guillotine built from materials available at Home Depot. “Something you can do with your $600 stimulus check,” reads the caption.
As a pro-Trump mob roamed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the McCartys each retweeted a now-suspended account that wrote, “If politicians deserve to live at all, let it be in fear.” The following day, Fred McCarty tweeted, “Capitol Stormers did nothing wrong.”
Cruz was among six senators on Jan. 6 who tried to block certification of Joe Biden’s election to the White House because, he said, of widespread concerns the vote was “rigged.” Cruz later called the mob scene a “terrorist attack” and said rioters should be prosecuted.
Five days after the riot, TTP organized a panel discussion featuring Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, a pastor. “We ain’t seen nothing yet, because we are about to be ruled in less than 10 days by a communist regime,” the elder Cruz said at Dallas event. “We must decide who we are going to obey.”
The event closed with a prayer for Ted and Rafael Cruz.
Rafael Cruz did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The group has become so controversial that this week it had to scramble for a meeting location in a Dallas suburb after a restaurant, a concert venue and a homeowners’ association each declined to provide space for the event, according to a Facebook post by Julie McCarty.
Lauren Trahan, who works for the corporate owner of the Rudy’s BBQ franchise in Denton, said she asked McCarty to cancel TTP’s reservation after receiving calls from concerned residents.
“We’re a barbecue restaurant,” Trahan said in an interview. “We’re not here to make a political statement regarding anything, and it’s something that we thought was going to cause turbulence.”
– – –
The Washington Post’s Dalton Bennett and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.