In his announcement for governor, Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso, immediately emphasized a handful of issues in contrast with Greg Abbott.
The first and most pronounced was on the state’s power grid. “Fix the damn grid” has been a rallying cry from Democrats since snow and ice knocked out the lights in February. It’s been specifically employed as a counter to Republicans’ passage of marquee legislation like election reform, the Heartbeat Act, and constitutional carry.
Republicans, with the help of Democrats, passed a slew of legislation aimed at preventing another catastrophe.
The package included an overhaul of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator; a directive to fix power generation incentives on the wholesale electricity market; reducing the electricity scarcity pricing caps; a weatherization mandate for generators; filling bureaucratic holes that caused power to be cut off at wellheads and in the midstream stage, which reduced the natural gas that could be used to generate electricity; securitization loans for companies financially encumbered from the blackouts; and the creation of a statewide alert system.
Democrats contend these reforms are not enough to fix the grid.
In his announcement interview, Beto O’Rourke, who is now running for governor, said, “[I]n the legislative session that followed [the blackouts], [Abbott] did nothing meaningful to prepare us for the next winter storm or the next test of our electricity grid.”
Instead of grappling with what the legislature did direct, its detractors point to the lack of a weatherization mandate for natural gas producers and pipelines — who are governed by the Railroad Commission. Others say Texas should be interconnected with the surrounding regional power grids, abandoning the isolation for which ERCOT has been known and was conceived.
But the weatherization mandate has been the focus of much of Democratic messaging.
The emboldened detractors have advocated a switch to a capacity market — wherein power generation is negotiated up front at a higher price rather than paid for as used.
Where the power grid criticism occupies the less-opaquely partisan position in the Democrats’ messaging lexicon, they are not shying away from criticizing the state GOP’s marquee legislation passed this year. Those three bills — election reform, the Heartbeat Act, and constitutional carry — were all passed two years after a session in which the legislature focused on “bread and butter issues” and avoided those that galvanize their grassroots.
But this time around, those issues became the focus — not least because Governor Greg Abbott now faces the first serious primary of his career.
Mike Collier, the 2018 Democrat challenger for lieutenant governor running again this year, criticized Dan Patrick and the GOP-controlled legislature for a “far-right” session meant to “fend off any potential primary challengers.”
Instead, Collier said the legislature should have focused on the “energy grid, expanded health care access, property tax relief, much needed infrastructure, better public schools, and gun safety laws.”
O’Rourke will surely face questions about his “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” comment. But O’Rourke has not retracted that position, and rather doubled down on his support for it.
Democrats, including O’Rourke, are trumpeting issues like the expansion of Medicaid, something they’ve tried and failed to do for a decade, along with the legalization of marijuana.
O’Rourke has also shied away from Green New Deal-type messaging, advocating the creation of clean energy jobs that “add to, do not replace, add to oil and gas jobs in the state.”
Something they’ll try and outrun, especially after what occurred in Virginia this year, is the recoil from parents at certain aspects of school curriculum — specifically critical race theory (CRT) imbued subjects and progressive sex education items.
School board races across the country, including in Texas, featured CRT in the rebuke torpedoing numerous incumbents’ re-election hopes. Currently, it is a toxic issue for Democrats to defend, and many on the left have stuck to insisting it isn’t being taught in schools.
Politics in 2021 cannot be discussed without the biggest story of the last two years: the coronavirus pandemic.
For his pandemic response, Abbott is facing criticism from both flanks — the right saying his actions were too harsh and the left criticizing the governor for not being strict enough. Democrats in and running for office have blamed each and every one of Texas’ over 70,000 official deaths from coronavirus on the incumbent governor.
Facing a historically unlucky midterm election cycle in which their party holds the White House, Texas Democrats have adopted a message focused on the power grid and coronavirus accentuated by opposition to certain key GOP legislative accomplishments.
After their 2018 gains, Democrats were convinced a “Blue Texas” was within reach. But last year the “Blue Wave” met the “Red Seawall” and was stopped in its tracks. Now the GOP is poised for a rebound in round two of Beto-mania in Texas.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.