On Super Tuesday, all eyes were on Texas for a host of different reasons. Nobody, however, expected what would come in the race for Texas Railroad Commissioner (RRC). Least of all incumbent Commissioner Ryan Sitton — who told supporters in an email “I have to admit, I didn’t see it coming, and I am very disappointed.”
And not even Jim Wright himself — who scheduled a full day of business meetings on Wednesday thinking it’d take more than a miracle to defeat Sitton.
“I didn’t sleep last night and I’ve been in meetings all day,” Wright told The Texan in an exclusive interview.
Just a couple of weeks ago, America celebrated the 40-year anniversary of the Miracle on Ice in which the U.S. hockey team stunned the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics. And what Texans witnessed Tuesday night was a similar type of miracle — one in which a severely outmatched David felled a Goliath.
Not only did Jim Wright — the owner of multiple oilfield environmental service companies and resident of Jim Wells County (just northwest of Corpus Christi) — knock off the heavily funded and favored incumbent, but he did so by over 10 points.
More than 220,000 votes separated the two when the dust settled.
TEC filings for Wright show he raised under $30,000 during the entire campaign while Sitton had over $2 million cash-on-hand in his most recent report.
Jim Wright was born in Bluntzer, but moved to Petronila after his family’s house burned down when he was young. During his upbringing, Jim became a rodeo fanatic. So good was he at bull-riding that after high school graduation, colleges came calling with scholarship offers.
But Wright’s father fell ill and so he was unable to attend college. He stuck with rodeo for a couple of years, but then decided he needed to get a job.
No shy personality, Wright said he walked up to the establishment a quarter-mile from his home — then called Texas Ecologists, operators of a hazardous waste landfill — and told them, “I’m the little man you passed every day riding the lawnmower or playing growing up, and if anybody deserves a job here it’s me.”
And thus commenced Wright’s environmental/energy path.
Wright worked his way up and eventually started his own company in 1991. He’s done environmental consulting for energy companies ever since.
Recently, Wright and some colleagues tried to form an environmental task force aimed at “working with the Railroad Commission to suggest needed changes to their existing rules to make it better for citizens and the industry.”
“Some of their rules are very antiquated, easily misunderstood, and unclear,” he added.
Fast forward to December 6, 2019, and Wright finally gave in to his peers’ encouragement to run.
“I decided to run for Railroad Commission because I deal with that organization day in and day out, not only from the private industry sector but also from the private landowner sector,” Wright underscored.
Wright has never run for office before, but issues he saw within the RRC drove him to jump in. Having dealt closely with the commission in his day job, Wright said, in his view, “The tail seems to wag the dog at the commission.”
Recalling the only conversation he had with Sitton before running against him, Wright provided an example of what he views as backward. Regarding disposal permits, Wright inquired about Sitton’s decision-making process to grant them.
A question according to Wright, Sitton answered by saying, “No matter what, if the application is administratively complete, I will grant it,” regardless of public opposition or anything else.
Wright took issue with Sitton’s position, and it played a part in his eventual decision to challenge the incumbent.
“I thought to myself, it’s time to make a change and add someone [on the RRC] who is concerned with moving our economy forward and at the same time being conscious of protecting our environment and our resources while putting forth the best marketing we can — that’s the obligation of the RRC.”
Wright found himself becoming the person “many in the energy industry would go to when they needed something done at the RRC.”
In the primary against Sitton, Wright said he relied significantly on word of mouth — to which he credited enthusiastic friends and volunteers across the state that spread his message. All in all, it was about as low-budget of a campaign as one can possibly run statewide.
And that’s not a knock against Wright. Creating a political machine such as the one he was up against is a difficult thing. But that’s the thing about machines, on occasion they can break down.
And to beat a machine the way he did is a feat that requires some reexamination of the prevailing campaign wisdom. While this race was certainly an anomaly in its outcome, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to be learned from it for the average campaign — not the least of which is to “always run scared.”
Sitton didn’t follow that maxim. He also won’t be the GOP nominee this November. Meanwhile, underfunded as he was, Wright ran with a purpose — something that clearly reaped benefits on Tuesday night.
Some specific counties where Wright received vast swaths of support were Bexar, Hays, and Tarrant counties. Most notably, in counties with fewer than 30,000 voters, Wright won a whopping 64 percent of the vote to Sitton’s 36 percent — that’s a difference of over 100,000 votes between the two.
Surely, some bit of the success can be chalked up to negligence on Sitton’s part, but his eight-day pre-primary filing shows Sitton spent between seven and eight times more in that time frame than Wright had raised in the entire campaign.
And that doesn’t even account for the ad-buy discrepancies.
Wright credited two of his key campaign advisors: his campaign manager Kevin Ware (who was also on the above-mentioned task force) and Corpus Christi campaign consultant Steve Ray.
The Texan spoke with Ray about the campaign’s strategy. The campaign focused on rural media markets (i.e. more bang for the buck), specifically buying radio spots on conservative talk radio shows which they knew would attract loyal GOP voters.
“We targeted rural areas because we believe that every Texan’s vote matters, not just those in big cities,” Ray underscored.
The other pillar of the strategy was digital/social media advertising. One example which Ray credited as significant to their success was a Facebook ad highlighting a 2015 op-ed by Sitton titled, “Time to Fire Donald Trump.”
According to Ray, not only did targeting Trump supporters with the ad work, but the engagement beget even more attention on Facebook, creating a snowball-type effect of message dissemination.
A second example Ray provided was a digital ad highlighting Wright’s bull-riding history, emphasizing his intention to wrangle the metaphorical bulls in Austin.
The final key factor Ray identified concerned issues not related to the RRC. “We wanted to highlight [Wright’s] pro-life, illegal immigration, and other positions because that shows voters the character of the candidate,” he added.
The second of those issues is incredibly personal to Wright.
In 2017, his wife Sherry was hit by a car driven by illegal immigrants and left for dead in the road. Luckily, another person found her, which saved her life, but Sherry is confined to a wheelchair as a result.
Wright also made it a point to not take campaign dollars from anyone who could influence his decisions on the RRC.
“I don’t want to feel obligated, or for [special interests] to feel I’m obligated, [to act in such a way] that would compromise my decisions.”
Wright drew this red line in the sand because he observed: “that type of thing happening [at the RRC] often.”
In November, Wright will face the winner of Democrats Chrysta Castañeda and Roberto “Beto” Alonzo, who made the runoff scheduled for May 26.
Concerning his prospective opponents, Wright said they’re both probably “good candidates” with an “equal shot of making it to the general,” but his focus remains on “doing [his] job to educate people on the differences of the platforms.”
Specifically, Wright cited the Democrats’ opposition to flaring. “If you do away with flaring today with no other technology, that would shut our oil business down and if you’re not producing oil, Texans don’t have jobs,” he emphasized.
“That would have a huge impact on today’s economy in Texas since the oil and gas industry is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, employers in the state today.”
Should he win in November, Wright has an eye on increasing transparency on the commission.
One technological innovation he wants to explore includes facilitating improvements such as coupling fiber optics piping with railroad right-of-ways — essentially killing two birds with one stone.
Overall, Wright wants to better market Texas’ most valuable commodity: its cheap, reliable energy.
Since the win, many people have reached out to Wright with congratulations. Both Commissioners Wayne Christian and Christi Craddick — with whom Wright said he is close — reached out offering to host him in Austin for a debrief on the new gig.
Wright was supposed to receive a congratulatory call from Governor Greg Abbott shortly after our interview — something he was excited about.
“I’d like to say thank you to the voters who believe in me and tell them I will do my best to make sure I do my job that is expected of a Texas Railroad Commissioner,” he concluded.
After a long day full of business meetings for his current job and the phone ringing off the hook for his prospective one, Wright was hopefully able to get a good night’s sleep.
After a stunning upset that rocked Texas politics, it might very well be the last one he gets until November.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.