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In Ag Commissioner Race, GOP Hopefuls Expand Field of Talking Points

Republican candidates in the crowded field for agriculture commissioner could benefit from talking about a lot more than agricultural issues, and some are relying on that strategy more than others.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Republican candidates for Agriculture Commission (l-r): Tommy Merritt, J Allen Carnes, Eric Opiela and Sid Miller.

Given the crowded field of 2014 Texas agriculture commissioner candidates and a rapidly urbanizing state, the best way to get voters’ attention could have little to do with actually talking about agricultural issues. Some of the Republican hopefuls in the race are sticking to that strategy, while others are keeping a narrower focus.

“There are really two campaigns” that candidates for the office must wage, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “One directed at agricultural constituencies and agriculture issues." But because the candidates are sure to be nearly drowned out by the higher races on the ballot, he said, they must also run a second campaign "that is addressed to people who know nothing and care little about agriculture.”

The winner of the March 4 GOP primary will face the winner of a Democratic primary whose candidates include South Texas rancher Hugh Fitzsimons, musician Kinky Friedman and cattle farmer Jim Hogan.

In interviews, all of the Republican candidates for the office were quick to stress more local agricultural issues, especially concerns about water and drought. But those are not always the issues they bring up to get attention. 

Former state Rep. Sid Miller has been most vocal about social issues. Recently, he made a fierce defense of reality TV star Phil Robertson, who was temporarily suspended from the popular show Duck Dynasty after making disparaging remarks about homosexuality.

Uvalde Mayor and farmer J Allen Carnes is striving to emerge to the top of the pack by talking almost exclusively about agricultural issues in Texas. He has launched a social media campaign asking for input from farmers and ranchers across the state about what agriculture means to them, and he has repeatedly pointed out that he’s the only full-time farmer in the race.

Former state Rep. Tommy Merritt and Republican state party attorney Eric Opiela have taken more of a mixed approach in their campaigns. While they have reminded voters about their conservative positions on issues like abortion, gun laws and same-sex marriage, they’ve also pointed fingers at a favorite target of Texas Republicans and much of the agricultural community: the federal government.

“The Obama Administration’s newest horror: The Endangered Species Act” was the subject line of an email blast to supporters and reporters last year from Opiela, who has also championed his representation of the Texas Republican Party during the redistricting battles with the federal government. He has also weighed in on an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that some Texans fear could give the agency far more jurisdiction over water, which is currently under local and private landowner control. While the agriculture commissioner would have little power to address this directly, Opiela said he could persuade the attorney general's office to continue its fight against the federal government through high-profile lawsuits. 

Merritt, too, identifies the federal government as one of the biggest threats to Texas agriculture. “Texans know what Texans need,” he said recently, criticizing federal subsidies for ethanol that he said hurt food production and prices, as well as echoing Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign call for eliminating the Department of Energy. His other major issue is property appraisal reform, which he says is vital to prevent farmers from getting crushed by huge tax bills. 

Jillson said endorsements are key at this point in the race. "These guys are just down-in-the-trenches, long-time politicians. They’re not well-known around the state," he said, so any recognition is helpful. 

Carnes won the Texas Farm Bureau’s endorsement, which means that a newsletter with his name and face on it will go to 400,000 members across the state. He has also won endorsements from smaller farm organizations, including advocates for corn and sorghum growers. “He brings knowledge of the issues important to Texas farmers and ranchers that really only a practicing farmer or rancher understands,” said Jim Sartwelle, director of public policy for the Farm Bureau.

Miller, on the other hand, called the Texas Farm Bureau “anything but conservative," adding, "I didn’t expect them to endorse me anyway." His support from groups like the North Texas Tea Party and Texas Right to Life and from Ted Nugent — who is also serving as his official campaign treasurer — is what really matters, Miller said. 

Opiela has touted what he called more than 200 “grass-roots” endorsements, providing a list of former and current local elected officials who have given him their support.

“This is the perfect storm,” Sartwelle said. “It’s the first time in God knows how long every spot on the ballot’s been [a real contest],” he said. “And to be eighth down from the top of the ballot, let’s just put it this way: The further down the ballot you go, there’s lots of people who will do lots of things to attract attention.”

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Energy Environment Politics State government 2014 elections Sid Miller State agencies