Texas Democrats think a seat on the oil and gas regulating board could be their best chance of winning statewide in two decades

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Democrat Chrysta Castañeda and Republican Jim Wright face off for a seat on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state's oil and gas industry. Credit: Todd Wiseman/The Texas Tribune

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For all the buzz about whether Texas will flip at the top of the ballot, some progressives see the race for railroad commissioner as their best chance of putting a Democrat in a statewide seat.

The Railroad Commission of Texas regulates the state's massive oil and gas industry, and its elected, three-member board has been entirely Republican for at least 25 years. No Democrat has been elected to any statewide seat in Texas in over two decades.

But this year, with attention on Texas races up and down the ballot, a virtually unknown Republican candidate and big-time donations to the Democratic nominee, Democrats think they have a shot.

“In addition to having a perfect candidate, we actually have the perfect opponent,” said Jeremy Otis, deputy research director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Chrysta Castañeda, a Dallas engineer and lawyer who specializes in the energy industry, is the Democratic nominee. Her Republican opponent is Jim Wright, who shockingly defeated the incumbent railroad commissioner, Ryan Sitton, in the March primary. Sitton, elected in 2014, raised significantly more money and 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.

State Democrats and environmental groups nationwide are calling Castañeda's bid “the biggest environmental race in the country.” But some Texas industry leaders are framing Castañeda as a threat to oil and gas jobs.

The normally low-profile race got a massive fundraising boost this week when billionaire Michael Bloomberg made a late donation of $2.6 million to Castañeda. Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Fund says it spent about $1.8 million on the race supporting her.

“Major outside money in a low-information, down ballot, fairly obscure race is as good a piece of evidence we have that Texas is in play politically,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.

The support has allowed Castañeda to place television ads across Texas, educating voters about the commission and slamming Wright, an oil and gas businessman from Orange Grove, for violating state environmental rules. In 2017 the commission fined a business Wright once owned “after an inspector found waste stockpiled directly on the ground, waste material storage tanks leaking material into the soil and unpermitted stormwater ponds collecting around the machinery and the facility,” according to the Austin American-Statesman. He paid $181,519 for the violations.

“This is such a little-known agency, so to be able to get the word out is really, really helpful,” Castañeda said in an interview. “But I also think people are ready for change in that the environment and climate issues are a big motivator for voters this cycle, and people around the nation know it – not just Texas.”

There are several practical political reasons this might be a winnable seat for Democrats, Rottinghaus said. Flipping the seat now “would also create a domino effect of future political investments in Texas,” he said.

“You've effectively got an open seat, since Wright beat Sitton, and you've got a weak Republican opponent who’s got his own ethical problems,” Rottinghaus said. “Castañeda is a female in a political world where we’ve got a big gender gap for Democrats, and the fact that she's got a Latina surname provides a potential boost in places where Democrats run strong when they run Latino candidates.”

The hype hasn’t shaken Wright, who said the race doesn’t feel competitive on the ground, where he’s been talking with voters face-to-face. Wright said he is running to protect the state’s oil and gas industry and keep Texans employed.

“They put their faith in TV, but I’ll put my faith in the people of Texas,” Wright said in an interview. “I think Texans are still very conservative, and I think Texans are smart enough to realize what oil and gas provides for our state, and I don’t think they’re looking at somebody who wants to … impede our success in any way.”

As the race heats up, some industry leaders are sounding the alarm, saying Castañeda is too progressive for Texas and attempting to align her with the Green New Deal, an ambitious and controversial plan to address climate change spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.

“It should alarm all Texans that these out-of-state extremists, who don’t care about our jobs, schools and communities, are actively working to eliminate the economic heartbeat of Texas and ignoring our state’s successful and bipartisan all-of-the-above energy approach,” said Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, in a statement. The organization’s PAC has endorsed Wright in the race.

Castañeda is centering her campaign on the issue of flaring, or the burning of natural gas that companies do not move to market. The practice, which emits harmful pollutants into the air, has become increasingly rampant. Oil and gas producers say it's because of a shortage of pipelines, while environmentalists say it's due to economics because natural gas is far cheaper than oil. They also blame the Railroad Commission, which has approved a historic number of flaring permits and extensions to flaring permits.

Castañeda raised $3.7 million in her latest campaign fundraising haul – far more than Wright, who raised $689,973 in that filing period, covering Sept. 25 through Oct. 24.

In the previous reporting period, covering early July through Sept. 24, Castañeda was competitive with Wright on donations, taking in $230,000 to his $244,000. But he outspent her nearly three to one.

From where Democrats are sitting, the race “kind of sells itself,” Abhi Rahman, the state party spokesperson, said.

“We feel good about it,” Rahman said. “A lot of people don’t understand what the Railroad Commission does, but they understand Chrysta is someone fighting for the actual jobs and for the actual people of Texas.”

Disclosure: Environmental Defense Fund, Ryan, Texas Oil & Gas Association and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.