Clara Villalobos Russell remembers the days when she used to play princess tea party with her childhood friends in Texas.
But those memories are nothing like the payoff of playing real life tea party today.
“We might have dreamed that one day there might be a Prince Charming,” Villalobos says. “But to actually have elected one, like we’ve done—well, who would have ever dreamed of doing that?”
The Prince Charming Russell is talking about is Ted Cruz, the presumptive new U.S. Senator from Texas that she and other Tea Partiers in the state are claiming credit for having placed on the precipice of a historic election in November.
“This will be the biggest victory for the Tea Party this year,” says Villalobos, head of the Tarrant County Republican Party in suburban Fort Worth. “It shows what we in the Tea Party can do, and there’s no stopping us now.”
Indeed, Cruz’s uphill triumph to capture the state’s Republican nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson toppled the GOP power structure in the biggest Red State in America—and has signaled that the Tea Party is a bigger national force to be reckoned with than ever before.
Read related: Ted Cruz — a Latino on fire represents Texas’ future
Cruz will be the first Latino elected to statewide office in Texas, but his likely election—no Democrat has been elected statewide in the Lone Star State since 1994—would transcend ethnic politics into something never before seen: A Hispanic U.S. senator, the face of the fastest growing segment of America’s population, championing the most vocal national constituency since the Civil War and its conservative agenda that could likely become a political litmus test for anyone seeking public office outside the country’s blue states.
“It’s emblematic of where the tea party is nationally, which is in 2009, 2010, the movement was just beginning.” Cruz says of what his victory means to the Tea Party movement. “And you had thousands and thousands of people out in the blazing sun protesting.
“And as we got forward to 2011 and 2012, those protests died down and I think the reason is the Tea Party went to work. They began rolling up their sleeves, going to work in campaigns, getting involved.”
And now the Tea Party is right in the mix of the Republican Party’s presidential campaign, with some fearing that it will be the source of a culture war over social issues as well as budgetary ones that may ultimately define what the future of America will look like and be like, on paper if not in real life.
Americans have always pledged to be “one nation under God.” But under the Tea Party, as it comes under sharper focus going into the Republican National Convention, America could also be said to be a country of guns and rosaries.
Tea Partiers “are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues,” according to the Pew Research Center’s 2011 study. They’re also more likely to support gun rights by 27 percentage points; to think abortion should always be illegal than voters as a whole by 17 percentage points; and to oppose gay marriage by 15 percentage points.
“We are,” Villalobos says, “what America set out to be.”
Fittingly, perhaps it would take magical tea leaves to figure out the future of the Tea Party. A year ago, some of the country’s top political pundits were writing off the movement, dismissing it as another temporary conservative fling with the past or because of its ties to Sarah Palin.
But dismissing the Tea Party so quickly may have been a mistake of associating it with third party movements of the past, most recently that of Texas businessman Ross Perot, who in 1992 ran his own independent presidential campaign.
Read related: RNC features Hispanics, Tea Party and Florida
What made the Tea Party different, though, may have been both its membership and its timing. These were not mostly politically disgruntled white, middle class conservatives like what drove the Perot movements. Instead, many of those who formed the Tea Party were disillusioned Americans, many who had previously disdained politics.
They were loud and unsophisticated politically, which may in part have been the reason their disruptive manner at town meetings surprised and frightened some office-holders who were unaccustomed to dealing with a public that was not all-adoring and respectful.
Except for a few instances, the Tea Partiers also chose not to go the difficult route of establishing a third party and instead chose to attempt taking over the GOP.
To that end, one Tea Party group is sponsoring Unity Rally 2012, a rally for conservative unity to be held in Tampa on Sunday, the evening before the start of the Republican Convention.
“The Tea Party is taking the initiative to build conservative union ahead of this fall’s election,” says Dustin Stockton of TheTeaParty.Net, one of the sponsors. “We are providing Tea Party leaders like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann a venue to speak at Tampa. Our hope is that the RNC joins us in the spirit of unity and allows Tea Party leaders an opportunity to speak at their convention.”
The GOP convention’s Monday kickoff is scheduled to include Cruz and Tea Party favorites, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
To Tea Partiers, the state of their movement is a dream come true, and members like Clara Villalobos Russell say they can’t wait to continue spreading the word—especially to other Hispanics they think are perfect fodder for the Tea Party.
“I think me and my family are a microcosm of Hispanics in Texas who have been here two, three, four generations and longer,” says Villalobos, 49, who has become the face for the Tea Party among Latinos in Central Texas.
Her recent 27th annual reunion of a family whose roots in Texas date back to the 1800s included 450 members—and almost all of the adults were conservative Republicans whom she believes are always overlooked in polls and surveys.
“There’s a lot of us and others like us here in Texas,” she says of Hispanic Republicans, “and, of course, if you don’t count us in any of those polls and surveys, it looks like we don’t exists, and I’m sure Democrats like spreading that myth.
“And that’s fine. Democrats and the news media can continue saying that Latinos vote overwhelmingly Democratic and don’t vote Republican. Meanwhile, at the end of the day, our numbers are part of the reason the Republican Party here continues to grow and continues to elect candidates like Ted Cruz.”
Cruz, understandably, agrees and says there are more young conservative Hispanic leaders like himself in the making.
“I think the Hispanic community, the values that resonate in our community, are fundamentally conservative,” Cruz told Fox News’ Chris Mathews the Sunday after winning the primary runoff. “They are faith, family, patriotism. Do you know the rate of military enlistment among Hispanics is higher than any demographic in this country? And they are also hard work and responsibility.
“A friend of mine, a Hispanic entrepreneur asked me a question some time ago. He said, ‘When is the last time you saw a Hispanic panhandler?’ I think it’s a great question.
“I’ll tell you, in my life I’ve never once seen a Hispanic panhandler, because in our community, it would be viewed as shameful to be out on the street begging. Those are all conservative values—faith, family, hard work, responsibility.”
Villalobos says her family, especially her father Ray, who worked hard to establish his own small business, typify what Cruz is talking about.
“My family,” she says, “is what the American Dream is all about.”
She has taken that message on to conservative talk show host Glenn Beck’s Fox Television program, and she has even gone to court to defend her right to express her conservative views.
When their neighborhood association tried to force them to take down a small placard on their property supporting the 9/12 Project Beck originated, Villalobos and her husband Johnnie refused and ultimately found themselves fined $7,200 by a justice of the peace.
The case caught the attention of conservatives and Tea Partiers and turned the couple into cause celebs.
“We believe in standing up for our rights as Americans,” says Villalobos, who is passing on the fight to the next generation.
Her 11-year-old grandson Preston Wood, an honors student, carries a pocket version of the Constitution that he always has ready to check.
“Ted Cruz is his role model,” Villalobos says, “and it’s children like Preston who are the future of our country.”