Elections

Wayne Christian wins big in Texas Railroad Commission race

State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, debates an amendment to HB1 on April 1, 2011.
State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, debates an amendment to HB1 on April 1, 2011. Texas Tribune

Former state Rep. Wayne Christian has won the race for Texas railroad commissioner.

With roughly a third of precincts reporting Tuesday night, the Republican had nearly 53 percent of the vote. That was enough to clinch an easy victory over Democrat Grady Yarbrough, Libertarian Mark Miller and Martina Salinas of the Green Party.

Christian will fill David Porter's shoes on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission, known for overseeing the state’s iconic oil and gas sector. The curiously named agency also regulates coal and uranium mining, pipeline safety and natural gas utilities — but not railroads.

The race came as the industry was mired in uncertainty, grappling with stubbornly low oil prices that have spurred bankruptcies and layoffs. Meanwhile, staffers at the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that periodically reviews agencies’ effectiveness, have recommended a major overhaul at the 125-year-old commission.

Christian, who works as a financial planner in Center, was the odds-on favorite to win the race, partly on the strength of more than $300,000 in fundraising since July, most of it from oil and gas interests. He nabbed endorsements from Gov. Greg Abbott, each sitting railroad commissioner, industry groups and more than two dozen other state officials.

Perhaps his biggest advantage, however, was his party affiliation in bright-red Texas. More than two decades have passed since a Democrat sat on the Railroad Commission. After defeating real estate mogul Gary Gates in the Republican primary runoff in May, Christian largely stuck to ideologically friendly events on the campaign trail.

Yarbrough, a retired schoolteacher from Flint who did not raise or spend any money since early in the summer, trailed Christian by a wide margin when the Texas Tribune called the race Tuesday night. The 79-year-old Democrat had 40 percent of the vote.

Miller sat in third place with just under 5 percent of the vote. The Libertarian drew an unusual amount of attention this election cycle. Campaigning on his technical expertise and calling for the Railroad Commission to do more watchdogging of the industry it also champions, the 65-year-old drew endorsements from the state’s biggest newspapers.

But he could not overcome the hurdle of his third-party status.

Salinas, a 38-year-old construction inspector, notched less than 3 percent of the vote late Tuesday.

This was Christian's second attempt to join the commission, after he lost a 2014 Republican primary runoff against current Commissioner Ryan Sitton.

Christian, 66, was considered a conservative firebrand during a 14-year legislative career in which he sought to add restrictions on abortion and encourage schools to challenge scientific theories like evolution.

On the campaign trail, he echoed Republican talking points that bash the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and advocated keeping a light regulatory touch on oil and gas producers.

Speaking at a candidate forum in February, Christian said he would not advocate for any major reforms this legislative session. “We need to protect the industry,” he said.

Sunset Advisory Commission staffers have recommended a host of changes at the agency, including beefing up its oversight of drilling, pipeline safety and abandoned wells; improving record keeping; changing its name; and no longer regulating natural gas utilities.

Industry and some lawmakers have pushed back against the proposals.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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