BY MIKE HAILEY
A race for the Texas Railroad Commission will be playing out in the shadows of more glamorous and expensive contests on the statewide ballot above it in 2014. There’s no telling how many voters won’t even realize that the RRC member that they elect will be regulating the oil and gas industry here without regard for trains or tracks or other subjects that the name of the position may conjure up.
But some Republicans believe that the outcome of the primary battle for railroad commissioner has the potential to have more long-term impact on the Texas political landscape than any other race that will take place here next year. They contend that the future viability of the GOP in a state that’s been a red bastion for more than a decade will be at stake in a wide-open primary shootout for the job that Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman is giving up in favor of a bid for attorney general in 2014.
A significant number of the Republicans who see it that way are backing State Rep. Stefani Carter of Dallas in the fight for the GOP nomination for RRC. Carter – a former prosecutor who’s in the midst of her second House term – will argue that she’s the frontrunner in the race because she’s the most qualified contender in a field that includes a handful of GOP rivals. But all of the candidates for the RRC can make that same subjective claim – and some like Republican Malachi Boyuls and Ryan Sitton will insist that they have more hands-on experience in the industry that the three-member commission oversees than the current and former state lawmakers who they’re running against. A pair of ex-Texas House members – Wayne Christian of Center and Ray Keller of North Richland Hills – are competing in the GOP primary in the RRC battle as well.
But Carter is unique from a demographic perspective as the only African-American statewide candidate who has any real chance of winning on either side of the aisle with less than four weeks remaining before the monthlong filing period for 2014 primary campaigns opens for business in Texas. Barring an upset of major proportions by former gubernatorial contender Debra Medina in the GOP battle for comptroller, Carter also is the only woman with a realistic shot at a spot on the Republican statewide ticket in the general election next year.
The white males in the RRC race and their supporters will dismiss ethnicity and gender as relatively irrelevant variables in the assessment of overall candidate qualifications. While Texas has come a long way since the Civil War and the suffrage movement, it’s conceivable that some GOP primary voters here will vote for one of Carter’s rivals simply because she’s black. None of the other Republicans who are competing for the post are going to make skin color an issue by calculation or design.
But Carter’s ethnic status will be obvious to most folks who watch much TV if and when she launches a broadcast advertising campaign – and the state legislator’s camp will be touting the fact that she’s an African-American woman because that will be an issue indeed in terms of the direction that the GOP hopes to take in a state where the population no longer has an Anglo majority.
At a time when Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis is pinning her hopes in an uphill race for governor on strong minority turnout and crossover support from women who typically vote Republican, Carter’s supporters say the GOP could suffer irreparable damage as far as the future goes if the first African-American female who has a chance to win statewide in Texas fails to survive the primary election.
Republican power brokers here want to believe that the party has put behind the public relations nightmare it faced when Hispanic incumbents who’d been appointed to statewide posts like railroad commissioner lost bids to keep those jobs when white challengers who’d had little money and no name recognition defeated them in GOP primary elections in the current century. The GOP can point to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz as the ultimate example of how Latino names aren’t baggage any more in Republican primary elections in Texas. Republicans expect to have another Hispanic – George P. Bush – on the statewide slate in 2014 as their nominee in a land commissioner’s race that he’ll be a prohibitive favorite to win.
Cruz and Bush – of course – aren’t typical Texas Hispanics who used to be known as Mexican-Americans before the ever-changing rules of political correctness rendered that term obsolete. Cruz’s family immigrated to the United States from Cuba via Canada where the future solon was born. Bush’s mother is a Colombian native who married an eventual American president’s son before he became the governor in Florida. The youngest politician named Bush could end up being the governor in Texas someday just like his uncle George W. used to be before a promotion to the White House himself. There’s nothing typical about the Bushes – and George P. fits the technical description of Hispanic thanks to his mom even though there’s no hint of that in his famous last name.
Carter – in sharp contrast – gives the GOP a political two-fer as a black woman in a state where political prognosticators on both sides of the aisle think the GOP could be destined for eternal irrelevance if it doesn’t adopt a bigger tent approach that’s easy to see across Texas by the next round of elections.
A Carter victory in the RRC race isn’t likely to put much of a dent in the overwhelming support that Democrats have enjoyed among African-American voters in Texas and beyond since they pushed civil rights laws through Congress in the mid-1960s. But Carter’s camp thinks her candidacy could be extremely significant to the GOP’s overall hopes in Texas in 2014 in light of the strategy that Democrats appear to be employing in their Battleground Texas effort that’s aimed at turning the state blue eventually.
Based on recent Battleground Texas literature, the Democratic effort that the people behind the President Barack Obama machine have organized and help finance appears to be concentrated on boosting primary turnout in key parts of the state regardless of the lack of action on that side of the divide at the state and federal levels in round one.
The theory revolves on the axis that people who vote in primaries are much more likely to go to the polls for general elections in the same calender year. Battleground Texas as a result has targeted areas with high numbers of swing voters like Carter represents in a suburban swath of north Dallas County in House District 102. Davis’ emergence as a gubernatorial contender in the wake of a historic filibuster against an abortion regulation bill has given the Democrats the magnet that they desperately needed to make the strategy here work. HD 102 is a prime example of the kind of district where Battleground Texas envisions a strong show of support for Davis if the operation produces a substantial primary turnout there despite the fact that the senator from Fort Worth doesn’t have any opposition within her own party so far in the governor’s race.
That strategy could pose a potential threat to Carter’s hopes in the RRC race because it would ostensibly siphon away probable supporters from the GOP primary to the Democratic primary if Battleground Texas executes successfully. Democrats know they can’t depend on Hispanic growth exclusively at this point in time if they hope to fare better at the polls in Texas next year. So the Democratic turnout push will be heavily targeting white women and African-Americans.
Carter demonstrated in her first winning House race in 2010 that she has a wide range of appeal when she unseated a Democratic incumbent who happened to be a white female who’d depended on GOP women votes to a significant degree when she’d won the HD 102 seat two years earlier by ousting a longtime GOP lawmaker.
Some of the RRC hopefuls will attempt to make the race a referendum on who primary voters perceive to be most conservative option available. Christian, who lost a bid for re-election in 2012 after his House district was all but dismantled, had one of the most conservative voting records in Austin during a 14-year stint as a legislator. Boyuls, a Dallas energy investor and attorney, has picked up some key endorsements from conservative leaders in his bid for the Texas Railroad Commission. While Republican Ryan Sitton of Friendswood will be touting his background as someone who started a successful engineering firm that specializes in the energy business in the RRC battle, it’s probably safe to assume that he’ll be billing himself as a true conservative as the contest unfolds.
Carter, however, has proven to be the kind of lawmaker who’s difficult to compartmentalize even though she can probably expect her opponents in the statewide contest to try their dead-level best to do so. Carter piqued the wrath of some tea party leaders initially when she pledged to put her constituents above partisan politics after her first victory in HD 102. She’s backed GOP House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio in two leadership elections when some conservatives and their tea party allies were vigorously opposing him. But Carter received high grades on scorecards that a pair of prominent conservative organizations assembled based on voting records during the regular and special sessions in 2013.
Carter has s been one of two African-American Republicans in the House since she entered the chamber in 2011. But she faces a dual challenge in her statewide debut nonetheless as a candidate in a crowded field at a time when Democrats have an unprecedented effort under way aimed at drawing voters who’d be inclined to back her for the RRC into their own primary instead in 2014.