I want to believe, I really really want to believe.
It was clear by Tuesday afternoon that Texas was in a full-blown crisis – and Gov. Greg Abbott had largely been out of sight.
More than 4 million households did not have power amid dangerously low temperatures, and an increasing number did not have heat or running water. Some families were burning furniture to stay warm, grocery stores were emptying, and people were dying. In the freezing darkness, many desperate Texans felt they were left to fend for themselves.
Abbott, a Republican, emerged that evening for a series of television interviews. In short, curt sentences, he told Texans in the Lubbock and Houston areas that he had issued an emergency order and called for an immediate legislative investigation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electrical grid. He angrily accused the council of not having a backup power supply and not sharing information with Texans, “even with the governor of Texas.”
Then he went on Fox News.
“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said, looking more relaxed as he chatted with host Sean Hannity, falsely blaming his state’s problems on environmental policies pushed by liberals.
This deadly disaster is one in a series that Abbott has faced in his six years as governor: Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 68 people, at least six major mass shootings that left more than 70 people dead, and a pandemic that has killed nearly 42,000 people in the state. Now, at least 32 people have died in Texas because of this storm.
In each crisis, Abbott often carefully studied the situation – and its political ramifications – before taking action, usually demanding future legislative changes that may never happen. He is known to deliver different messages to the various constituencies in his state, all while trying to build a national profile as a conservative leader.
Critics have said Abbott and his administration failed to take the storm’s threat seriously or issue sufficient emergency warnings throughout – with meteorologists giving ample warning of a serious storm that could bring record cold, cause power demand to spike, and threaten electrical infrastructure more than a week in advance. Texas Republicans have been accused of neglecting winterization upgrades recommended to the electrical grid more than a decade ago.
“He hasn’t done anything,” said Conor Kenny, a Democrat who is a former planning commission chairman in Austin. “All he has done is call for an investigation into his own administration.”
Abbott’s staff declined to make him available for an interview and did not respond to a list of questions.
Some longtime Abbott supporters are worried that this crisis could politically hurt the governor, who is up for reelection next year. Several prominent Democrats are eyeing the race, and a group of liberal activists – some of whom worked on former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign – started a political action committee last year called the Beat Abbott PAC.
“Short-term, I am absolutely certain that the governor’s popularity will suffer as a result of this,” said Bill Hammond, a Republican lobbyist and former head of the Texas Association of Business. “He is the head of state government at this time . . . and it’s just like the quarterback, the blame and the credit go to the quarterback.”
But Hammond said he expects that Abbott will quickly rebound, as he has before. Abbott can make upgrading the power grid a defining goal and will be well-positioned to be reelected to a third term, he said.
“He was upset as anyone could be about this,” Hammond said. “Our [political competitors] will use this against us, no question about it, but we have plenty of time before next winter, and then we will come out of this stronger.”
Harry LaRosiliere, the Republican mayor of Plano in fast-growing Collin County near Dallas, said the power and water shortages are exposing how too many Texas politicians did not invest in the everyday needs of residents, such as highways, schools and public utility projects. A few years ago, LaRosiliere said, a major company decided not to relocate to Plano because it worried that Texas would eventually run out of water.
Instead of making investments to keep up with population growth, LaRosiliere said politicians in Austin are too often focused on divisive social issues including setting rules on which bathrooms transgender individuals can use and expanding gun rights.
This was a WaPo story reprinted in the Chron, so if it seemed like it was written for people who didn’t know much about Texas, that’s the reason. The quote from Mayor Harry LaRosiliere aside, it’s mostly Dems who think Abbott will pay a price for his lackluster leadership, and mostly Republicans who think he’ll be fine. Whatever you think about Bill Hammond, he’s right that the next election is a long way off, and there is the time and opportunity for Abbott to do something – or at least make it look like he’s done something – that voters will like. And while multiple articles have cited that UH Hobby School poll that showed Abbott with a 39% approval rating (including the next story I’m about to comment on), no one ever mentions that his overall approval was one of the best from that poll, and it’s just one poll. I want to believe, I really want to believe, but we’re way too far out from November 2022 to make any assessments.
If the freeze and blackouts were tough on Greg Abbott, they provided Beto O’Rourke with an opportunity to show what a different kind of leadership could bring to Texas.
While Ted Cruz was getting clobbered for fleeing Texas amid its historic winter storm, the Democrat he defeated in 2018, Beto O’Rourke, was already deep into disaster relief mode — soliciting donations for storm victims, delivering pallets of water from his pickup truck and once again broadcasting his movements on Facebook Live.
It was part of an effort orchestrated by O’Rourke and his organization, Powered by People, in response to the crisis. It was also, to Texas Democrats, a sign that O’Rourke the politician is back.
The former congressman and onetime Democratic sensation acknowledged last month that he’s considering running for governor in 2022, and he has discussed the possibility with Democratic Party officials and other associates. The drubbing that Texas Republicans are taking in the wake of the deadly storm may provide him with an opening — even in his heavily Republican state.
“After all of Texas freezes over because of poor leadership, I think it’s a different state of Texas than it was two weeks ago,” said Mikal Watts, a San Antonio-based lawyer and major Democratic money bundler.
If O’Rourke runs for governor, Watts said, “I think he could catch fire.”
Say it with me now: I want to believe, I want to believe. (I say that as I remind you that I’m still Team Julian, and he gave the barest of hints that maybe he could possibly be running as well.) I will say this, the one thing that might help drive down Abbott’s approval is an opponent who gets a lot of attention and who is good at focusing people on Abbott’s myriad failures as Governor. Whatever Beto and Julian ultimately decide to do next year, as long as one or both of them are doing that much, it’s a good thing.