In his white cowboy hat and creased blue jeans, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was starting to get red in the face.
Last week, during a candidate forum, Miller asked Cooke County Republicans for their vote. He’d earned an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, after all, and was ready to serve another four years.
But his primary opponent, southeast Texas Rep. James White, had an ace up his sleeve, which he slammed on the table during closing remarks. White told the room of Republicans that last year one of Miller’s top political consultants had been arrested for allegedly participating in a hemp-licensing bribery scheme.
Miller wasn’t having it. He stood up and put his hand on White’s shoulder, who unceremoniously ended his attack after being told his time was up.
During his tenure in office, Miller has attracted controversy for his flashy conservative edge and social media savvy. Now, opponent White is billing himself as an ethically sound solution to Texas’ embattled agriculture commissioner.
Over the years, Miller has made numerous eye-grabbing headlines.
In 2015, he shared a meme suggesting that America should nuke “the Muslim World.” He was also accused of misusing taxpayer money to finance a trip to Oklahoma, where he received a “Jesus shot,” an injection which purportedly cures all pain for life.
During Black History Month in 2018, Miller posted a shining tribute on Facebook to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. And shortly into his term as commissioner, he pardoned cupcakes as an act of defiance of new federal school-lunch guidelines.
“I also pardoned pies, cookies and brownies,” he said on Shoot the Bull, his official state podcast.
“He’s always been one of those colorful throwbacks to lively Texas history.” – Dr. Thomas Marshall
Regardless, Miller commands a robust lead among the most likely Republican primary voters: 34% say they’d back him, with 3% going for White, according to polling released in November by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. (Another 61% said they weren’t sure how they’d cast their vote.)
“My understanding is Sid Miller is definitely the strong favorite,” said Dr. Christopher Macaulay, an assistant political science professor at West Texas A&M University.
On top of its responsibility for the state’s agriculture, the Texas Department of Agriculture administers school lunch and breakfast programs for students. Still, this is the kind of race where most of the Texans who will pay attention are those who are involved in agriculture and are rurally based, Macaulay said.
Dr. Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said Miller has some baggage. Editorial boards will likely dredge up past scandals during the race and many may ultimately favor White.
Miller harkens back to the “rustic age of Texas politics” where one could be a flamboyant character, Marshall said. That fact likely drives a lot of more “mainstream” Republicans crazy.
“He’s always been one of those colorful throwbacks to lively Texas history, which we don’t really see very much,” he said.
Jason Vaughn, president of the Houston Young Republicans, said he’s been friends with White for a long time. As a small beef farmer, White actually works in the industry. He’s also served six terms in the state House and chaired the committee to pass constitutional carry.
White has insider knowledge of the agriculture industry, which affects a massive part of Texas’ budget and ecosystem, Vaughn said. Under the incumbent, fees have increased and are more frequent, which is one of the reasons why Vaughn is personally endorsing White.
On top of that, the hemp license-selling scandal should be a major issue for Texas voters, Vaughn argued. That, along with the higher fees, makes him concerned for the industry. “This is not Chicago,” Vaughn said. “We shouldn’t have to bribe officials and consultants to get stuff done.”