It would be understandable if Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is afraid of the dark.
This week’s winter weather brings memories of last February’s storm, a mammoth event that caused the state’s faulty grid to fail and knock out power for millions of Texans. The Department of State Health Services estimate that 246 people died because of the storm and blackout.
As Thursday wintry mix sends Texans into the warmth of their homes, most residents are anxiously pondering a critical question: Will Texas’ power grid will hold up?
Perhaps no one is more vested in the answer than Gov. Greg Abbott, who has tried to assure Texans that the electric grid has been fortified and residents will come out of this winter event in good shape.
How the grid holds up in the next couple of days and the rest of the winter will impact Abbott’s bid for a third term as governor.
“I’ve talked to Governor Abbott. ‘We are ready to go. There is not going to be a loss of power. You’re not going to be sitting in the dark,’” said conservative radio talk host Chris Salcedo on his show this week, who added the “left-wing is praying natural disaster.”
“Well, all I can say is it damn well better not be,” Salcedo said. “One Texan dies of exposure because they lost power, and you might as well just say Gov. Robert Francis O’Rourke.”
Democrat Lillian Salerno, a former appointee in the presidential administration of former President Barack Obama, said everyone wants the grid to be fixed.
“The governor promised that the grid was fixed. Whether or not he’s done that I think everybody’s waiting to see,” Salerno said. “Democrats aren’t sitting around waiting and hoping that things go wrong so Beto O’Rourke would have a better chance, but certainly people are interested in whether or not the governor is true to his word.”
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the probable Democratic nominee for governor, has made last year’s grid failure a centerpiece of his challenge against Abbott.
On Friday, O’Rourke will start driving his pickup across Texas for campaign events in more than 20 cities over 10 days in what he calls a “Keeping the Lights On Tour.” On Thursday, he began posting video updates on his tour on social media and invited Texans to share their weather woes with him. The road trip ends in Houston on Feb. 15, the anniversary of the storm and massive blackouts.
Let’s look out for one another as this storm gets worse in Texas.
We will share info on power outages, warming centers, road conditions, and more in this thread.
Please add additional info. pic.twitter.com/N3yhpYs4go
— Beto O’Rourke (@BetoORourke) February 3, 2022
O’Rourke’s tour starts as demand for electricity could be approaching record levels in areas served by Texas’ main power grid, according to grid managers. But experts don’t expect widespread blackouts because there won’t be as much precipitation as last year and since that time some power generators have weatherized or placed alternate fuel sources at their plants.
Still, never before has the stability of the grid been such a provocative political question.
“The Abbott camp profoundly needs this to be an uneventful storm and an uneventful winter,” said Mark Davis, a conservative radio talk show host based in Dallas. “The great likelihood is that that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
No matter what happens, Davis said the stakes are significant.
“The party in charge gets blamed when bad things happened,” he said. “Last year Abbott caught all kinds of holy grief, even though nobody could identify what exactly he had done or not done that made the grid so susceptible, but his opponents took advantage of it then. Now they’re really looking at an opportunity to take advantage of it.”
Polls show Abbott has something to lose if the grid fails.
A Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston survey released Thursday revealed that 70% of Texans believe the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) would be responsible for the grid failing. Abbott was second, with 49% of respondents saying he would be responsible for another grid collapse.
But it unclear if voters would actually follow through on holding elected officials accountable.
According to the poll “nearly one quarter (24%) of Texans reported that how state elected officials responded to the February 2021 winter storm will be a very important factor influencing their voting decisions in 2022, with a third (32%) reporting that it would be one of several factors influencing their vote decision and 44% responding that how the officials responded to the February 2021 winter storm would not influence their vote decisions this year in any way.”
Republicans and Democratic candidates have had to answer questions about the reliability of the grid at various forums.
A poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas-Tyler found that Texans are split on whether the grid is fixed. While 46% of all registered voters say they’re confident the state’s electricity grid is prepared to avoid blackouts this winter, 47% say they aren’t. And by a plurality of 42%-37%, they believe state officials are most responsible for a successful grid, compared with energy companies.
“There’s no magical Democrat grid solution that’s been sitting on a table somewhere that Abbott has somehow ignored or blocked,” Davis said. “Everybody learned some things from the grid failure. And both parties have talked a good game about making it better and most people, I think, believe that we have.”
Abbott appears confident as well, though this week he hedged his bet by saying that no one could guarantee that there wouldn’t be any “load shed events.”