Saturday, December 2

Texas GOP revolts against Trump’s favorite cowboy

Miller, however, has hit considerable turbulence in the job. At one time, he was a top Trump choice for U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary — he had served on the Trump campaign’s agriculture advisory committee in 2016. But at home, Miller has enraged state agriculture interests and state legislators by hiking fees for department services. He was investigated, but not charged, for misusing state funds for travel to Oklahoma and Mississippi where he got the “Jesus shot,” a non-FDA approved anti-inflammatory injection that is supposed to reduce chronic pain, and attended a rodeo.

Just last month, Miller’s top political consultant and campaign spokesperson, Todd Smith, was indicted by a grand jury on charges of theft and commercial bribery after a two-year investigation into allegations that he overcharged people for hemp licenses — a permit issued by the state agriculture department.

Following the indictment, Miller dropped Smith from his campaign and vowed that the agriculture department and his campaign would fully cooperate with any proceedings.

Miller’s campaign did not respond to multiple emails and phone call requests for an interview.

Folksy and plain-spoken, a cowboy-hat-wearing farmer and rancher who served in the state legislature, Miller has gone toe-to-toe with his former legislative colleagues ever since becoming commissioner. The result is what some Texas insiders refer to as a “slow stripping” of his departmental responsibilities. This includes the removal of some regulatory power out of TDA’s jurisdiction, such as fuel regulations and aquaculture.

“Just the fact that those conversations have come up and they really were centered at a bitterness towards the way Sid treated the legislature. And unfortunately, memories are long,” GOP state Sen. Charles Perry said. Perry noted that there has also been talk of removing even more responsibilities from the department, such as agriculture inspections. “Sid became commissioner [and] he was bigger than life and he was going to show the legislature who’s boss. And it’s just not a good place to put yourself with the people and your budget.

The chair of the Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, Perry says that he doesn’t have ill feelings toward Miller. But he has endorsed his top primary competitor, state Rep. James White.

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Many of the trade groups the agriculture department oversees have also mutinied. In 2019, the state legislature directed that gas pump regulation be removed from the TDA’s jurisdiction. The move was applauded by the Texas Food & Fuel Association, a trade group which represents convenience stores, grocery stores and truck stops — the retail sector of the oil and gas industry. After which, Miller called the association, “liars, cheats and horse thieves.”

TFFA, which declined to comment for this story, supported and fundraised for Miller’s 2018 Republican opponent Trey Blocker. This go-around, the group has avoided any endorsement at all.

Among its duties, the agriculture department also regulates seed quality and certification for the state — two programs that impact the Texas Seed Trade Association directly. And the TSTA is backing White.

“Commissioner Miller and I on a personal level no longer meet because the last time we met we had unkind words for one another, ” said Bryan Gentsch, TSTA executive vice president. “Our relationship is not a good one and therefore we have such a strong desire to have a commissioner that we can discuss things with and communicate with and that will make an attempt to understand the intricacies of our problems. We have never gotten that impression from Miller.”

Gentsch said Miller doesn’t collaborate or discuss the regulations and potential changes his office makes, including fee increases that would directly impact their member producers.

“That’s new for us,” he said. “That has not been the case for previous commissioners.”

A slew of Texas ag and business associations have refrained from picking a side in the primary altogether.

“There’s a concern of retaliation,” explained one Texas trade group spokesperson. “[Miller] brings so much more unpredictability and unilateral decision making into the mix and that is unique among our elected officials.”

White has been the beneficiary of all those tensions. The only Black GOP lawmaker in the statehouse, White is a strong advocate for gun ownership rights and outwardly conservative. With few ideological differences between the two candidates, White is campaigning on an anti-corruption message that draws on the ethics controversies that have swirled around Miller.

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“The time is now. The department is in disarray,” White told POLITICO, emphasizing Miller’s legal troubles and associations. “This race is about who you trust. You darn skippy, I have a good shot at winning this race because this commissioner has scored an F in trust and an F in security.”

White took a shot at Miller over his ties to the hemp bribery scandal last month during a candidate forum that ended with the candidates in a heated discussion over the charges and court dates Miller’s campaign manager was facing.

White, who has public support from three state senators and 17 GOP representatives, has also received backing from multiple state-based groups, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, which didn’t endorse an ag commissioner candidate in the last cycle.

Other groups including the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, East Texas Conservative PAC and the Forestry Political Action Committee have contributed to White’s campaign. White even captured an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle which, in a nod toward Miller’s background as a rodeo cowboy, dubbed the commissioner a “rodeo clown.”

“The top two state Republican leaders, the governor and the lieutenant governor, haven’t supported him, haven’t endorsed him. They have kind of stayed away from him on that front,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas GOP strategist.

A vocal critic of Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Miller was expected to be one of the governor’s top primary challengers this year. But Trump endorsed Abbott and Miller announced, instead, that he would run for reelection. Trump subsequently endorsed his reelection effort.

In candidate forums, Miller touts his farm to school meals program, arguing that schools last year bought $65 million of Texas farm produce. He also promotes his satellite office in Argentina for agriculture trade and his RFD-TV show titled “Texas Agriculture Matters.” He calls himself a “political maverick,” and says he is the target of establishment Republicans and liberals.

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According to recent polls, Miller still holds a clear advantage in his race. A February Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler survey showed him with a lead over White — 32 percent to 14 percent — but nearly half of primary voters were undecided. Rancher Carey Counsil, who calls for “bringing ethics back to Texas,” was in third place with 6 percent.

Miller’s critics draw hope from the high numbers of undecided voters in a race against an incumbent who voters are already familiar with after two terms. And they note that he was among the GOP candidates in the 2018 general election who significantly underperformed compared to their 2014 performance. In 2014, Miller won by 20 percentage points; four years later, he won by just five.

“There’s been a history that he [Miller] built up, but there hasn’t been a candidate to challenge yet, up until Representative White came into the seat,” said Patrick Brophey, director of stakeholder relations and legislative planning at the North Texas Commission. “I think that’s where it’s a little different now than it had been in the past because yes, status quo, it’s just another thing with Mr. Miller doing whatever he does again. But at the same time, now someone is actually standing up.”

Trump’s endorsement of Miller might prove another asset in the primary. During a Jan. 29 Trump rally in Conroe, Miller touted their relationship by noting that he was the first Texas statewide official to endorse Trump in 2016, and the first to endorse him for 2024.

Describing himself as “pro-life, pro-god, pro-gun, pro-military, pro-business, pro-police-force, pro-Constitution, pro-Israel, and anti-Biden,” Miller said the 2024 presidential contest is “a race between patriots and traitors. It’s that simple.”

The Trump endorsement “does help Sid, the power of incumbency helps Sid and the fact that he’s got his name on just about every gas station pump in Texas using his official position helps him with just his name,” Steinhauser said. “When you go into your tank, you see ‘Howdy, This is Sid Miller, your Texas ag commissioner.’”

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