Sid Miller, the blustery rodeo cowboy whose first term as Texas Agriculture Commissioner has been marked by numerous high-profile controversies that cost him the support of several key conservative groups, was on track to avoid a runoff Tuesday evening as early voting returns rolled in.
With more than half a million ballots tallied — representing only about 10 percent of the state's precincts — the former state representative from Stephenville had secured more than 56 percent of the vote in a three-way race to lead a department whose wide-ranging responsibilities include inspecting lottery balls and running the federal school lunch program.
The remaining 64 percent was split fairly evenly between Miller's two challengers, Trey Blocker and Jim Hogan. That is a bad omen for Blocker as Hogan — who refused to raise money or actively campaign — has not been considered a serious candidate.
The contest has been considered by many political observers to be the most competitive statewide primary race, although Miller — an incumbent who secured the vast majority of key conservative endorsements — has always been favored to win.
Miller, a nurseryman and horse breeder, faces a serious challenge from Blocker, a former Austin lobbyist, ethics adviser and attorney from Fredricksburg who kicked off his campaign with a $750,000 loan to himself — which immediately put him ahead of Miller in cash-on-hand.
Blocker, who also hosts a conservative podcast, had previously indicated he would only run if Miller accepted a position with President Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture — early last year, Miller and three other Texans were on a short list to head the agency.
None of them made the cut, although Miller — one of the first Texas Republicans to endorse Trump — didn’t hold it against the president, repeatedly calling himself “Trump’s man in Texas” on the campaign trail.
Blocker, whose client list as a lobbyist included controversial agrochemical corporation Monsanto, declared his candidacy anyway in late November — weeks after dismissing Miller as an “embarrassment to the Republican Party” on one of his podcast episodes.
On the campaign trail, he has seized on the many high-profile controversies and perceived missteps that have marked Miller’s first term: His decisions to hike fees on farmers and ranchers after the Legislature rejected his sizable funding request; to dole out $400,000 in bonuses to agency employees; and to bill taxpayers for personal, out-of-state trips that included receiving a “Jesus shot” in Oklahoma and competing in a Mississippi rodeo.
Blocker also has condemned Miller’s many inflammatory and factually questionable social media posts, which have included referring to Hillary Clinton as the c-word. And he has attempted to paint Miller as soft on immigration for his support of a measure as a state legislator that allowed undocumented students to access to in-state tuition if they graduated from high school in Texas — legislation that passed at the time with overwhelming GOP support.
But political observers say Blocker faces an uphill task in positioning himself to the right of someone who once promoted bombing the Muslim world.
In the past several election cycles, Republican primary voters have favored the most conservative candidates in statewide races, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
While many likely weren’t fans of Miller’s use of public funds for personal travel and some of his more offensive comments, Jones said they were likely to overlook all of it because of his reputation as a “strong, reliable conservative” and his “strong support for President Trump and social media posts that have been viewed as anti-Muslim and anti-Hillary Clinton.”
Blocker’s chances aren't helped by his past donations to Democratic candidates — something he says was part of his job as a lobbyist — and his decision to vote in the 2008 Democratic primary, which he said was a tactical vote promoted by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who reasoned that Hillary Clinton would be a weaker candidate against John McCain.
Miller repeatedly needled Blocker for that on the campaign trail, dismissing him as a "low-level lobbyist" and RINO — Republican in name only — and made no apologies on the campaign trail for any of the things he’s done in his first term that even some of the most conservative groups came to view as missteps.
Miller has made no apologies on the campaign trail.
At a debate in Tyler last month, he said he couldn’t think of anything he’d do differently. He defended the bonuses he doled out as a much-needed morale booster, noted that he reimbursed taxpayers for two out-of-state trips and that the Texas Rangers, who investigated those trips, never brought charges.
As for the fee hikes, which generated millions more than the cost to run the programs they’re meant to fund, according to a state audit, Miller said he’s considering rebates while defending the increases as “right on the money.”
Miller’s strength in the race is a sign of the Republican Party’s shift to the right and increasing preference for candidates who speak their minds and snub political correctness, said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.
He said Blocker has been seen as the establishment candidate in the race for focusing on fiscal and good governance rather than trying to match Miller’s social media bluster.
“Good governance has not been an effective political label in Texas politics for a long time,” Rottinghaus said.