As Trump Stirs Controversy, One Down-Ballot Democrat Dreams of Victory in Texas

Aug 11, 2016

Credit Todd Wiseman / Texas Tribune

When Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine visited Texas earlier this week he came with words of encouragement for a Democratic Party in a deep red state.

“We’re going to go after Texas,” he said, recalling his time leading the Democratic National Committee. “We are serious about this.”

And as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to make controversial comments and drop in the polls, some Democrats are allowing themselves to dream of that victory.

One of them is, himself, a candidate.  

Grady Yarbrough is the Democrat running for a seat on the Railroad Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry.  It’s the only non-judicial statewide seat that’s up for grabs this year.

"I'm about out of money. I've been spending my personal money up to this point," Yarbrough says. "I'm at the point now where I'm going to have to go to the churches and ask them to take up an offering or something."

He faces an uphill battle, to say the least, against his Republican opponent, former state Rep. Wayne Christian.

Yarbrough, a retired schoolteacher, is running on three main issues. He wants to limit oil and gas activity near population centers. He wants to assure the safe transportation of fossil fuels. And he wants to ban railroad commissioners from taking industry contributions.

On that last point he’s gone one step further. Election filings show he hasn’t received a single contribution from anyone at all.

“You can’t accuse me of taking money from special interests, because I don’t take campaign contributions,” he says.

But, he concedes, his position has run up against the reality of the modern political campaign, which usually requires money to succeed.

“I’m about out of money. I've been spending my personal money up to this point," Yarbrough says. “I’m at the point now where I’m going to have to go to the churches and ask them to take up an offering or something.”

Going to churches for contribution is likely not legal. It’s also probably not what the Texas Democratic Party wants to hear.

Yarbrough has run unsuccessfully for a number of offices and he’s come under fire from some as a spoiler. But his difficulties are also a symptom of a larger problem for a party that’s been out of state power since 1994, says Democratic political analyst Harold Cook.

“That’s been a long, long time, and it is not likely to attract the A-Team,” says Cook. “If Democrats had already won one, statewide, or won more than one statewide, you’d have a very different set of candidates running against each other in a primary election for the chance to be the Democratic nominee.”

That’s not to say some state Democrats couldn’t ride the coattails of a successful national campaign. Cook says congressional seats where demographics favor Hillary Clinton will become more competitive.  But he sees a race like the one for Railroad Commissioner tightening up only if Trump loses in a national landslide.

Railroad Commission candidate Grady Yarbrough.
Credit Facebook

That doesn’t faze Grady Yarbrough. He answers accusation that he’s a “spoiler” by pointing to the seriousness of the issues he is raising on the campaign trail.

“Whatever the results at the end of the election in November, so be it,” he says. “I live and die with it. That’s just who I am.”

He says he’ll keep campaigning on his three main issues, and regardless of the outcome he’ll know he did it his way and, so far, without the help of anyone.