As statewide interest groups roll out their endorsements before Election Day, one race seems to keep being left out of the fray.
A handful of groups endorsing nearly every Republican running statewide this year have ignored — or declined to endorse in — the race for Texas agriculture commissioner featuring incumbent Republican Sid Miller against Democrat Kim Olson.
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, TEXPAC, the political arm of the Texas Medical Association, and the Texas Farm Bureau, a group that advocates on behalf of Texas farmers and ranchers, are among some of the groups that skipped Miller’s race in their general election endorsements. The Texas Food and Fuel Association — which backed one of Miller’s two Republican opponents ahead of this year’s primaries — did not respond to comment on whether they’ll be weighing in again on the race this fall. And the Texas Association of Realtors, which skipped over Miller’s race in its first round of endorsements for November, said it might revisit the agriculture commissioner’s race in the coming weeks.
Miller has become a unique presence in Texas politics. He was one of President Donald Trump’s most avid Texas supporters in the tail end of the 2016 election and said last year that he'd consider taking a role in the Trump administration if the president appealed to him directly.
But he's faced scrutiny in his own state for making several flubs since being elected four years ago. In February 2015, the Texas Rangers launched a criminal investigation into Miller after he tapped taxpayer funds to bankroll two trips that involved personal activities — including an appearance in a Mississippi rodeo and the receipt of a medical injection in Oklahoma called the “Jesus Shot.”
During the 2016 campaign, he made news when a post from his Twitter account called Hillary Clinton the c-word. (The tweet was quickly deleted and, after initially saying he had been hacked, Miller said a staffer shared the post by mistake.) Lately, he’s been in the hot seat for repeatedly sharing fake news on his Facebook feed.
Current and former campaign strategists say they’re confident Miller will win this fall. But having his name noticeably excluded from several prominent PAC endorsement lists has some scratching their heads about whether members of Miller’s own party are distancing themselves from “Trump’s Man in Texas.”
“[He’s] created some irritation in Republican circles,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist. “I remember at the state party convention in 2014 when he went up and gave a fiery speech and the crowd loved it. I think from there — once he took office — it was one mistake after the other.”
“There was a lot of grumbling kind of right out of the gate when he took office and nobody wanted to say too much publicly,” he added. “But I think as things got worse and the coverage got worse … it was like, okay, enough is enough.”
Those who work with Miller say they’re not surprised at the PACs' decisions.
“Commissioner Miller has never been the darling of the Austin lobby establishment, so not having the support of the Austin lobby establishment is par for the course and not something we’re really worried about,” said Todd Smith, Miller's campaign spokesman.
Some groups insist it isn’t personal.
Take TEXPAC, for example. It didn’t endorse either Miller or Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick for next month’s general election, but threw its support behind every other Republican running statewide.
Brent Annear, a spokesperson for the Texas Medical Association, said the group has endorsed in the agriculture commissioner race in the past “though not often,” adding that the group usually only endorses in races “that are germane to health care.” One notable endorsement, he said, was a few years back when TEXPAC backed Susan Combs, who served as agriculture commissioner for several years starting in the late ‘90s and was nationally recognized for her work to combat obesity and improve physical education at high-poverty middle schools.
“Typically, candidates for those two offices ... do not work on health care policy, which is why typically TEXPAC does not endorse in those races,” Annear said. “As I understand it, this is par for the course.”
A spokesperson for Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC gave a similar explanation, saying the PAC often doesn’t endorse in the agriculture commissioner race. The PAC skipped endorsements for the race in 2010, but endorsed Miller in the 2014 general election.
“It’s something we look at each cycle, and make a determination as to whether or not to endorse,” said Lucy Nashed, the spokesperson. The agriculture commissioner is “just not an office that we typically interact with at TLR, so [this year] we did not endorse.”
Perhaps the most obvious snub is from the Texas Farm Bureau, which works with Miller’s agency. This isn’t the first time the bureau has passed over the commissioner: In 2014, it supported J. Allen Carnes — who received less than 13 percent of the vote — in the GOP primary and remained neutral when the race went to a runoff between Miller and Tommy Merritt. It did not endorse Miller in the general election that year either, a spokesman for the bureau said.
“The board makes all of those decisions and they met with all of the candidates that participated in this year’s primary and they have decided not to make an endorsement. That is the way it stands right now,” Gene Hall, the Texas Farm Bureau spokesman, said. “Our board felt the interests of our members were better served to remain neutral in this race at this time.”
But the bureau’s decision might not go without consequence.
It will certainly “create friction,” said Bill Miller, a veteran political consultant and lobbyist who has represented both Democrats and Republicans. “If it was already there then this increases it. But that’s part of the deal if you don’t endorse and you have to do business with them. These guys aren’t just telling Miller to tone it down, they’re trying to halfway, kind of, punch him in the nose.”
Smith, Sid Miller’s campaign spokesman, said the bureau has been “on the wrong side of every major race in Texas for the last 20 years.”
“I don’t expect them to change now,” he said. “Commissioner Miller has been a longtime member of the Texas Farm Bureau. They didn’t endorse Rick Perry when he was running for re-election as governor. They’ve missed a lot of big races. I would be a little bit more nervous if the Farm Bureau had endorsed us. I would think there might be a problem of some sort.”
Meanwhile, Olson, the Democrat challenging Sid Miller, said she’s confident that groups staying neutral in her race will work in her favor this fall.
“You can look at these groups and who they tend to endorse and see they tend to lean right,” she said. “It’s more powerful that they don’t endorse him because it tells him that they’re not pleased with his leadership.”
Yet for all the groups opting to stay silent, Miller remains in a position of strength. He carried nearly 56 percent of the vote in a three-way primary earlier this year. Trump, who hasn’t yet waded into the commissioner’s general election bid, tweeted his support for Sid Miller ahead of this year’s primaries. And on his campaign website, Miller touts the support of several agriculture groups and prominent individuals — including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the Exotic Wildlife Foundation and the Texas Association of Dairymen.
“Commissioner Miller has fed cattle. He understands our industry, which is why Beef-PAC is supporting his campaign,” Josh Winegarner, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association’s director of government relations, told the Tribune in an emailed statement.
But Smith said Miller is more concerned about getting the approval of voters.
“We’re much more concerned about earning the support of the majority of Texans and the only endorsement that’s really going to [matter] in this entire race is the one that’s made on Nov. 6 by the voters of Texas,” Smith said. “We’re pretty confident that we will win that endorsement, and that we’ll win that endorsement handily.”
Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas Food and Fuel Association, the Texas Association of Realtors and the Texas Association of Dairymen have been financial supporters of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.