When former State Rep. Wayne Christian entered the GOP primary runoff for Railroad Commission 12 points ahead of his opponent, he had the backing of numerous Tea Party groups and Republican clubs. He looked very much like the favorite in his race against relative political newcomer Ryan Sitton.
Tuesday GOP voters upended those expectations, nominating Sitton to run in the general election for a seat on the Commission, which regulates the Texas oil and gas industry.
Sitton owns an oil and gas engineering consulting firm. He faced numerous questions in the primary and runoff over whether he could ethically regulate an industry to which he belongs. He initially said he would stay involved with his company if elected, a position from which he later backtracked. He also came under criticism for refusing to divulge his client list.
Little appeared to differentiate Christian and Sitton on policy issues. Both candidates stuck close to conservative positions on regulation, decrying what they describe as federal overreach and burdensome environmental rules. They also shared similar views on social issues unrelated to oil and gas, and reminded voters of their anti-abortion and pro-gun rights positions.
While little separated them on policy, they presented distinct personal histories. They also appeared unafraid to go negative in the final weeks of the campaign.
“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 told StateImpact Texas, trying to turn what his opponents painted as a weakness into a strength.
It’s a tactic that appears to have worked. In claiming victory on his website tonight, Sitton said he was “committed to working as hard as ever to earn every Texan’s vote” in the general election.
In the days to come, political analysts will try to explain how the Railroad Commission race became the only high profile Republican runoff in which the supposed Tea Party favorite lost. Jim Malewitz at the Texas Tribune notes that Sitton outspent Christian. Sitton appeared to be the favorite of the oil and gas industry. He had numerous personal endorsements from industry leaders and some established Republican figures (although more money and endorsements didn’t seem to help some other candidates the runoffs).
Sitton will now face Democrat Steve Brown and Libertarian Mark Miller in the general election.
Brown has spent the primary election raising questions about the unintended consequences of the Texas oil and gas boom. He’s traveled to North Texas to call attention to concerns over manmade earthquakes, and to South Texas to highlight air pollution. Those are topics that got little attention in the Republican primary, though Sitton may need to address them further as he heads to November.