Abbott serves as a go-to punching bag for many constituents still shell-shocked from February’s winter storm, which plunged millions into darkness amid rolling blackouts and power outages. Although the state’s death tally initially hovered around 150, Buzzfeed analysts later estimated 700 Texans perished during the disaster.
The governor is up for reelection next year and will face several contenders in the Republican primary. Many Texans are gunning to vote him out of office, yet some political experts say he’s still the strongest contender.
Last week's conserve-power notice by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) won't likely hurt Abbott's chances in the Republican primary, said Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Still, he understands why people are blaming Abbott: Much like presidents, governors serve as their state’s “crisis manager.”
“I don’t mean to say he isn’t without his fingerprints on this problem,” Marshall said. “The question is: Is there any real remedy, and do we have a hot summer?”
Several factors played into the latest furor over ERCOT, Marshall said.
The Texas power grid is “grossly inadequate and poorly conceived” and isn’t built to endure calamities, he said. Abbott also appoints nominees to the Public Utility Commission (PUC), which had adopted a “lackadaisical approach” to energy grid regulation. Meanwhile, the state Legislature’s energy grid reforms amounted to a “Band-Aid job.”
Although there were warnings of catastrophe, another widespread outage was ultimately averted, Marshall said. Plus, the incumbent doesn’t yet have any serious primary opponents.
Car mogul and former state Sen. Don Huffines threw his hat in the ring recently, and former Republican Party of Texas Chair Allen West is rumored to be considering a bid. Neither is a particularly strong candidate, he said.
The Democrats also haven’t offered a well-funded, baggage-free competitor, Marshall said. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke and movie star Matthew McConaughey are said to be among the Democrats’ best chances of flipping the governor’s mansion blue, yet both would be hard-pressed to beat Abbott.
"There’s no magical fix to this situation." – Jason Vaughn, policy director for Texas Young Republicans
“Before the general election next year, we could have a hot summer. I don’t think any of that is going to matter if there’s no credible opponent,” Marshall said. “If we get another Lupe Valdez who finally scrapes up $1 million by Election Day, that’s not a credible opponent.”
The gubernatorial election is still far enough out that the recent power grid scares likely won’t affect Abbott, said Jason Vaughn, policy director for the Texas Young Republicans.
After February’s storm, many asked ERCOT to be more communicative about future outages, Vaughn said. Now that they have, though, Texans are upset with them.
Certain conditions led to the June notice, he said. The wind wasn’t blowing to generate adequate wind energy at the same time temperatures were heating up faster than expected. Lawmakers worked to reform the grid during the past legislative session, but people can’t expect all those bills they passed to mend the issue overnight.
“It’s kind of like road construction: There’s going to be times where you’re going to have a lane that’s closed and that’s going to cause a little bit of a problem,” Vaughn said. “But ultimately, you’re trying to fix the problem, right?”
Earlier this month, The Texas Tribune reported that Abbott signed two Senate bills aimed at reforming the state’s power grid. SB 3 requires generators and transmission lines to be upgraded to handle severe weather. ERCOT and the Texas Railroad Commission must inspect facilities for the proper upgrades. Failure to weatherize such facilities could result in a penalty of up to $1 million.
SB 2 alters ERCOT’s governance, allowing the state’s leading politicians to have great influence over its board of directors. Now, a selection committee will appoint eight of 11 members of the board, who must be residents of Texas.
The bills also require the sending of “Power Outage Alerts” to notify Texans when the state’s power supply is inadequate to meet demand.
Ultimately, Vaughn trusts that Abbott has done his best to get Texas in a good spot.
“There’s no magical fix to this situation,” he said, “and acting like there is, is just campaigning.”