Some political campaigns, like the race for governor or president, energize everyday people, grab the media spotlight, and spark heated public debate. Then there are races like the Republican primary runoff election for Texas Railroad Commissioner.
It’s a down-ballot race that many Texans know nothing about (the commission has nothing to do with railroads, rather it regulates Texas oil and gas industries). But that hasn’t stopped the race from getting increasingly negative as the primary runoff on May 27th approaches.
In fact, the lack of voter enthusiasm is likely part of what’s driving the negativity.
“You’ll see a big difference at the top of the ballot for people who vote in the Lieutenant Governor’s Race on the Republican side, who don’t vote when it gets down to this race,” says Ross Ramsey, co-founder and Executive Editor of the Texas Tribune.
Those that do vote will be choosing between former state representative Wayne Christian and oil and gas industry engineering consultant Ryan Sitton. These candidates each have the task of convincing a small number of Republican voters that they would make the better regulator.
And this being a primary runoff, that small number of voters is very, very small.
“These voters are not only much more conservative than the average November voter, but they’re much more conservative than the average November Republican voter,” says Mark Jones, Chair of the Political Science Department at Rice University. “We’re dealing with a subset of a subset, and that subset is very conservative.”
Jones says that’s why we’re hearing a lot from the candidates about abortion, immigration, and other issues important to the GOP base.
In a race where name recognition is low, Wayne Christian is also leaning on his symbolically potent surname to appeal to Republican primary voters, reminding them that he is “the only Christian on the ballot” in a YouTube video.
It’s something Sitton – who also happens to be of the Christian faith – doesn’t much appreciate.
“You know it’s a campaign gimmick, is what it is,” he tells StateImpact Texas.
Shared Ideals and Ideas
Not only do all these political topics have nothing to do with oil and gas regulation, the candidates appear to agree on them. And when it comes to their approach to policy, it’s hard to find much difference, either.
Both candidates favor a relaxed regulatory environment, decrying what they see as the EPA overreach. They both reject the notion that the recent surge in earthquakes in Texas is linked to the oil and gas boom, even though scientific research says it most likely is linked.
With so many shared ideals and ideas, there’s not much left to talk about but their personal backgrounds. So that’s where Sitton and Christian have staked their claims.
“The thing that sets me apart is my experience in energy. Running a company that has served technically the oil and gas industry, that’s what I will bring to the Railroad Commission,” Sitton tells StateImpact Texas.
Wayne Christian did not respond to an interview request, but he’s been highlighting his own conservative record as a former lawmaker.
Because the race has boiled down to the personal histories of the candidates, the sniping between the campaigns has focused on those histories.
Christian has raised ethical questions about Sitton’s current ownership of a firm that does business with oil and gas companies. It’s an ethical problem to try to regulate an industry you do business with, he says.
Sitton initially said he would stay at his firm if elected, but he’s backed away from that position.
“We’re gonna take additional legal steps like putting our company in a blind trust, stepping down as CEO. Whatever steps I need to take so that voters will feel very confident that I’m only a Railroad Commissioner, and there are no conflicts,” Sitton says.
Sitton counters that his opponent’s voting record raises ethical questions of its own, saying Christian supported laws that would have benefited him both personally and financially.
As the race draws to a close, the attacks appear to have become more pointed. A quick online search for each candidate will yield not only their own campaign’s website’s, but also attack sites. Rinositton.com, for instance, paints Sitton as a “Republican In Name Only.” While Therealwayne.com describes Christian as a corrupt politician who opposes Texas energy.
It’s something that Mark Jones of Rice says we’re seeing a lot of this in Republican runoff campaigns this year.
“Their policy position is relatively similar, and therefore what they’re doing is attempting to discredit their opponent based on personal attacks,” says Jones.
The runoff election is May 27th. Early voting starts Monday, May 19, and runs all week through Friday, May 23.