FAIRVIEW — In a packed country club ballroom last month, Lance Christian, wearing a pinstriped suit, addressed a gathering of likely North Texas voters. Few, if any, seemed familiar with the 44-year-old candidate for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, the curiously named agency that oversees the state’s iconic oil and gas sector — but not railroads.

The mostly gray-haired folks who had gathered at the forum, organized by the Collin County Republican Party, had just heard two rivals in a Texas House race promise to fight the spread of Sharia in Texas. Soon, it was Christian’s turn to pitch his candidacy.

Christian, who grew up in nearby Plano, mentioned that he was a local boy — a sound political move. But then he uttered something that voters in this bright red slice of North Texas rarely hear: “I’m not going to tout my conservative credentials.” 

The Railroad Commission geoscientist spoke of his technical know-how and experience at the agency he wants to lead. As a member of its Groundwater Advisory Unit, he explained, he was charged with evaluating where it was safe to drill.

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“I’m the only candidate who has worked for the Railroad Commission,” he said in a voice lacking a politician's confidence. “I know how it works. I know the departments.”

In the Republican race for the seat David Porter is leaving at the three-member commission, Christian — a political novice with a $59,000-per-year salary — is embarking on something of an experiment: Can the agency staffer win a statewide primary based on scientific expertise alone? 

“I’m doing a statewide, first time ever without any political support, no funds,” he said in an interview. “It’s a little bizarre.”

Agency officials cannot recall another staffer running for railroad commissioner since the 1980s, said spokeswoman Ramona Nye.

The Republican has a steep climb. Besides having few political connections, Christian, who is still showing up at his day job, has constraints that other candidates don’t. For most of the race, he couldn't campaign — or even give an interview to a reporter — between the weekday hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., due to state rules barring him from campaigning on the job. Meanwhile, Christian, who is not married and has no children, is organizing the estate of his father, who died in August. 

The scientist knows he’s an underdog. But in a race as topsy-turvy as this one — with seven candidates, including another one named Christian — who knows what will happen?

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A Wild Race

As Election Day approaches, little about this GOP contest has unfolded as insiders expected.

The first twist came in December. That’s when Porter, who was first elected in 2011, dropped his re-election bid less than a week before the deadline to file for a spot on the ballot. The surprise announcement triggered a flood of late filings.

When the dust settled, candidates included former state Rep. Wayne Christian of Center; John Greytok, a longtime Austin attorney and lobbyist; Gary Gates, a wealthy real estate investor and cattle rancher in Richmond; Ron Hale of Cyprus, who runs a security firm for oil and gas producers; Weston Martinez, a Republican activist from San Antonio on the Texas Real Estate Commission; and Doug Jeffrey, a Vernon native who served in the U.S. Air Force.

On the Democratic side, former state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, Cody Garrett and Grady Yarbrough launched campaigns.

And there was Lance Christian. The commission geoscientist, formerly of the Texas Water Development Board, said he had long advocated for scientists to get involved in policymaking.

“Sometimes the science doesn’t always seem like it’s being taken into consideration,” he said. When Porter dropped out, “I decided well, maybe it’s time I practice what I preach.”

To be sure, Lance Christian isn’t the only candidate running on experience. Most have highlighted some affiliation with petroleum. Greytok is touting his legal expertise, saying he would help the agency fight “federal overreach.” Wayne Christian says his political experience would help the agency deal with lawmakers who hold the agency's purse strings. Gary Gates, the real estate agent, says the commission needs someone with his knack for business.

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But Lance Christian says he’s the only one who understands the science that the agency relies on to make decisions.

He agrees with his opponents that regulations are best left up to the Railroad Commission instead of the federal government. But he doesn't blast President Obama for what many Republicans call a “war on fossil fuels." He calls that rhetoric "overcharged."

“I try to leave politics out of science and technical issues," Christian said.

Such a perspective could help a railroad commissioner, said William Kazanji, a car dealer in McKinney who saw Christian speak at the Collin County country club.

“Hands-on is always better — knowing the ins and outs, to when they put the rig up, to drilling to fracking to everything,” he said. Kazanji had not decided whom to support.

But John Tintera, a former Railroad Commission executive director who has not endorsed in the race, downplayed such experience. “Good policy uses science and fact but is not necessarily best developed by scientists,” he said.

Catching Texas by Surprise

Lance Christian’s candidacy initially took observers by surprise, not the least because of his surname.

Some wondered: Was he trying to confuse supporters of Wayne Christian who, in past races, has called himself “the only Christian on the ballot?” That Christian — the longtime lawmaker — forced a runoff for commissioner in 2014 and is arguably the biggest name in this year's contest.

In the hours before he filed, Lance Christian sought out advice from Commissioner Ryan Sitton, an engineer who had touted his background when he successfully ran in 2014.

“I told him what the landscape looked like, and what it was like to run for office,” said Sitton. “I said look, if you think it’s something you want to do, go for it.”

So Christian went for it, with minutes to spare. But he didn't chat with Sitton's colleagues — Commissioners Christi Craddick and David Porter, causing some initial awkwardness.

Lauren Hamner, Craddick's spokeswoman, said the commission encourages staffers to run for office if they want to, but “we do have an internal protocol and you have to come and speak to the commission hierarchy about that.”

The scientist said he wasn’t aware of such protocol, and everything had happened so fast after Porter exited the race. But he has made sure to follow the rules — no calls, no emails on agency time.

Christian calls his agency colleagues supportive.

But he did receive a suspicious call at work. The caller, he said, claimed to be from Collin County Republicans, asking him to fill out a candidate survey. But the group said it never made such a request, making Christian wonder whether someone was trying to catch him campaigning at work.

“To be quite honest, I’m probably going to start searching my vehicle for a GPS tracker,” he said last month. “I’m not saying there’s anything. I’m just saying I’ll be searching for it.” 

Building Momentum

In recent weeks, Christian seems to have erased any doubts about whether he’s taking the race seriously — even if he still lacks a campaign website. He has put hundreds of miles on his car, crisscrossing the state to speak at candidate forums and answer questions from newspaper editorial boards.

With time demands surging this month, Christian asked the agency to reduce his hours, and his bosses obliged. It’s a risky move because that status lasts for at least six months, with no guarantee of returning to full time.

“If this was poker,” Christian said, “what I did was go all in.”

He hasn’t picked up major Republican endorsements like Greytok (former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Rhonda Lacy, a State Republican Executive Committee member from Midland) or Martinez (Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum; and Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values).

But newspaper editorial boards are paying attention. The Dallas Morning News and Corpus Christi Caller-Times have endorsed his candidacy, citing his scientific background and apolitical nature. The Houston Chronicle recommended a runoff between him and Greytok — though, to Christian’s horror, the first version of the article initially mixed up Lance with Wayne Christian (“I’m like, ‘Oh my heavens, what have y’all done?’”).

The endorsements have boosted the geoscientist’s confidence. A month ago, he pegged his chances at 3 percent. His most recent calculation? "Maybe at least 20-25 percent."