Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Former state Rep. Wayne Christian won the Republican nomination late Tuesday in the race for Texas railroad commissioner, edging out Houston-area real estate mogul Gary Gates in a race that turned heated in its final stages.
Christian earned 51 percent of the vote, or 192,599 votes, according to complete but unofficial returns. Gates, who has made several failed bids for public office, walked away with 185,887 votes, or 49 percent support.
In a statement released Tuesday night, Christian said he was honored to win the nomination. "We have a lot of work ahead of us creating an environment that will allow our state's energy sector to once again get hardworking Texans back to work," he said.
Christian heads to the Nov. 8 general election, where he will be a pronounced favorite against Grady Yarbrough, who defeated Cody Garrett in the Democratic runoff Tuesday.
The winner of the general election will succeed David Porter on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and gas sector.
The contest comes at a key time for the 125-year old agency, which also regulates mining, pipeline safety and natural gas utilities — but not railroads. A crash in oil prices has plunged the petroleum industry into a world of uncertainty — spurring bankruptcies, layoffs and talk among candidates about how the commission should respond. Meanwhile, the agency is poised to undergo intense scrutiny during the 2017 legislative session.
In April, the Sunset Advisory Commission, the body that periodically reviews state agencies, recommended a host of changes at the Railroad Commission — including changing its name, improving its oversight of oil and gas drilling and pipeline safety, and passing its natural gas utility duties to the state’s Public Utility Commission.
On the campaign trail, Gates and Christian both echoed Republican talking points, speaking of fighting back against the federal Environmental Protection Agency and maintaining a relatively light regulatory touch to protect energy producers in Texas.
The candidates largely sought to distinguish themselves by citing their backgrounds — and skewering the backgrounds of their opponents.
Christian, a financial planner who previously served on the House Energy Committee during a 14-year legislative career, emphasized his experience in public office.
The Republican from Center, who previously ran for railroad commissioner in 2014, fumbled early in his runoff campaign when he told the Tribune that he didn’t realize that the Railroad Commission regulated natural gas utilities.
Gates, who touted his knack for business, painted Christian as a “career politician” who was out of touch with the needs of the business community. Christian shrugged off that line of attack and raised questions about Gates’ business acumen — by digging up unflattering details from legal challenges against his companies that own mostly low-income apartments.
But in a low-turnout contest for an office that experts widely consider misunderstood (not the least because of its name), it was unclear whether those storylines shaped Tuesday’s outcome.
Christian was backed by a bevvy of conservative organizations, including Empower Texans. The political arm of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, the state’s biggest petroleum group, also endorsed Christian. Gates’ endorsers included the Texas Association of Realtors and the Conservative Republicans of Texas.
After shelling out $1 million ahead of the March 1 primary that whittled the race to two candidates, Gates spent $1.1 million more in this showdown — more than eight times what Christian did.
On the Democratic side, Yarbrough tallied 53.9 percent to Garrett's 46.1 percent with 99.6 percent of precincts reporting.
In bright-red Texas, Christian is clearly favored to win the general election. More than two decades have passed since a Democrat sat on the commission.
Libertarian Mark Miller, a petroleum engineer who now develops software for the industry, will also compete in the November contest. He self-published a book about the Railroad Commission after running for an open seat in 2014.