Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton concedes Republican primary in surprising upset

Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton at a hearing in Austin on Oct. 10, 2017. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

In a surprising upset, incumbent Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton has conceded to challenger Jim Wright in Tuesday’s Republican primary for a seat on the board overseeing Texas’ oil and gas industry.

Sitton, elected in 2014 to the three-member board, had the support of top state leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and both of the state’s Republican U.S. senators. In their most recent campaign finance disclosures, Sitton had $2.2 million cash on hand and Wright had less than $13,000.

“Congratulations to Jim Wright,” Sitton tweeted Tuesday night. “It's been an honor and incredibly rewarding to put my experience to work for Texas. I appreciate everyone who voted for me and all of my incredible supporters and I look forward to what God has in store next!”

Wright, who owns an oilfield waste services company, told the Austin-American Statesman last month he was running to “bring integrity back to the Texas Railroad Commission” and that commissioners should recuse themselves from matters that involve campaign contributors. It’s common for commissioners to receive campaign contributions from the industries they regulate.

Sitton is something of a black sheep on the commission. He has had a tense relationship with the board’s other two commissioners, sometimes finding himself the lonely vote when the other two agree. He and Christi Craddick, who was then the board’s chairwoman, sparred in 2017 over the termination of the agency’s executive director. And in 2019, when tradition dictated that Sitton should be nominated to chair the board, Craddick instead nominated colleague Wayne Christian.

Sitton has also broken from the other two commissioners over whether the board should be renamed to better communicate its role in the energy industry.

Railroad Commission races tend to be low-profile, and Wright has the good fortune of sharing a name with a former U.S. House Speaker, 18-term Democrat of Texas Jim Wright, who died in 2015.

Democrats have long criticized the commission as a rubber stamp for industry.

Four Democrats are also competing for the seat. The primary looked likely to go to a runoff in May, with oil and gas attorney Chrysta Castañeda and former state Rep. Roberto Alonzo leading, but neither clearing the 50 percent threshold late Tuesday.