A GOP climate change denier who pitched himself as “the only Christian” in a race against a Jewish opponent is projected to win reelection to the Texas Railroad Commission, a little-known regulatory panel that wields tremendous power over the oil and gas industry.
Republican Wayne Christian fended off a spirited challenge from Luke Warford, a former consultant who hoped anger over the Lone Star State’s deadly February 2021 power outages would help him cleave off enough support to become the first Democrat elected to statewide office there in three decades.
With nearly 55% of votes going to the Republican, The New York Times, The Texas Tribune and The Texan magazine all declared Christian the winner early Wednesday morning.
“We cannot allow Biden’s radical agenda, based on unproven, politicized science, to take root in Texas, we need more domestic oil and gas production to drive down the cost of gasoline and groceries and ensure the reliability of our grid,” Christian wrote in a tweet declaring victory.
Warford faced an uphill battle by running as a Democrat in a state that remains firmly in the Republican Party’s grip despite its millions of liberal-leaning voters. That was especially true in a midterm election where the GOP was generally favored.
But the East Coast native, who relocated to Austin several years ago, saw a chance to paint Christian as a corrupt do-nothing whose chumminess with the industry he regulates left upward of hundreds of Texans dead.
Last year’s storm brought a catastrophic cold snap to Texas, where lax regulations and normally hot weather mean few homes are built to hold heat during freezing temperatures. As Texans cranked the heat, electricity and gas demand soared just as the pipelines that funnel gas around the state froze, causing shortages that spurred rolling blackouts.
A BuzzFeed News investigation estimates that at least 700 people — nearly five times the official state death toll — were killed by the storm during the worst week of outages.
Federal officials had warned the Texas Railroad Commission in 2011 that pipelines needed to be weatherized. But the commission declined to enforce any rules on pipeline companies, which in turn donated heavily to the Republicans who held the panel’s three commissioner seats. That included Christian, who took office in 2016.
The connection to Christian may have been tenuous, but the Grammy-nominated gospel singer, who first became a Texas state legislator in 1998, has a long record of apparent self-dealing and pliable ethics.
As a state representative in 2009, Christian voted to exempt his own beach house and those of his neighbors from a state law banning construction on public shorelines.
In 2018, he published an op-ed accusing “the activist media” of lying about climate science, insisting, “we don’t know whether man-made greenhouse gases are impacting our climate in a harmful way.”
Earlier this year, Christian rejected the Railroad Commission staff’s advice and approved an oil-waste dump just feet from a vital drinking water aquifer. The company behind the dump donated $100,000 to Christian’s campaign a mere three days later, the Odessa American reported. While that may not be illegal, Houston Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson wrote in February that Christian “demonstrated what at best is a profound disregard for ethics, and at worst, engaged in public corruption.” (Christian insisted he acted within the law and dismissed the allegations to Texas Monthly as “mudslinging.”)
With at least one poll showing the potential for a tight race with Warford in the final days of the campaign, Christian went on a Houston TV station and pitched himself to voters as “the only Christian, by name, on the ballot for railroad commissioner.”
A spokesperson for Christian’s campaign told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the remark was “a joke for people to remember,” and said the candidate did not realize Warford was Jewish.
That Christian triumphed anyway may have more to do with the R next to his name than anything about his or his opponent’s record or message in a state where even some core Democratic voters are flocking to the GOP.
But Democrats’ prospects aren’t necessarily worsening. Beto O’Rourke, the former U.S. representative from El Paso who challenged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018 before embarking on an ill-fated presidential campaign in 2020, has helped organize Democrats across the state with each run.
That kind of persistence could pay off for down-ballot races, too. Colin Strother, a veteran strategist for moderate Democrats in Texas who was not involved in the Railroad Commission race, said he’d like Warford to commit to running for the commission again in the next election.
“I see a lot of potential and promise from Warford,” Strother said ahead of election day. “He’s a bright young man, he’s exactly the type of candidate our party needs, and he’s exactly the type of candidate we want running for office.”
In mid-October, Warford said he had not yet decided whether he would run again.