O'Rourke seizes on Texas power grid in bid against Abbott

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Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) is seizing on Texans' concerns over their energy grid following the devastating winter storm earlier this year in his bid to oust Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

The O'Rourke campaign sees the grid as a solid wedge issue in the traditionally red state and will emphasize what it characterizes as failures by Abbott to protect his constituents from deadly temperatures and soaring power bills.

"People in their homes were literally freezing, and it was because their government had failed them," campaign manager Nick Rathod said in an interview. "They literally felt it, and that's why it resonates well with Texans."

O'Rourke launched his bid earlier this month talking about the February blizzard and deep freeze that has been estimated to contribute to as many as 700 deaths amid the power outages.

"I'm running for governor, and I want to tell you why," the 2020 presidential candidate said in a video. "This past February, when the electricity grid failed and millions of our fellow Texans were without power, which meant that the lights wouldn't turn out, the heat wouldn't run, and pretty soon their pipes froze and the water stopped flowing, they were abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them."

O'Rourke has also brought up the storm at campaign events, telling a crowd in Corpus Christi: "Some of you told me that you were without lights or heat or running water for more than a week."

And the storm has been featured in O'Rourke's social media and in Facebook ads, according to Facebook's ad library.

Abbott's campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Hill.

But Texas-based Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said that, at the moment, with nearly a year before the midterm elections, he doesn't think the GOP should be too worried, given the prevalence of other issues.

"I'm not convinced that the winter storm and the fallout will be front and center of voters minds in September and October of 2022," Steinhauser said.

He added that he believes Texas voters will be more focused on the economy, border security and cultural issues such as mask mandates and school curricula.

Steinhauser said he believes that Abbott's response to the storm attacks should be two-fold, focusing on issues where he's strong and also noting that he passed legislative changes in its aftermath.

That legislation requires weatherization for power generators and transmission lines to help them stand up better to extreme weather and says that natural gas companies will have to do the same if regulators deem they are "critical."

But it leaves out upgrades for houses and pipes and is also expected to raise utility prices.

Rathod said O'Rourke's campaign will specifically seek to hammer the governor over those price increases, calling it an "Abbott tax."

He said that if O'Rourke is elected, he would move toward "securing the grid in a way that the Abbott administration has not," look at "rolling back" price increases and determine additional ways to "fully weatherize" it.

O'Rourke, who failed in a 2018 bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), faces an uphill battle, starting off averaging several points behind Abbott in opinion polls. Texas has not elected a Democratic governor since the 1990s.

Democrats nationwide face bleak prospects in 2022, with President Biden's approval rating underwater and Republicans outperforming their 2020 results in recent gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey.

But that could be another reason for the O'Rourke campaign to focus on the electric grid, emphasizing a local issue rather than a national one.

"We are going to be speaking to Texans about Texas," Rathod said. "We're going to go everywhere, talk to everyone, bring everyone in and speak to issues like the grid that resonate with Texans everywhere."

Texas has a unique situation with its electric grid. Most of the country is either part of the Eastern Interconnection or the Western Interconnection, but most of Texas is on its own grid, called the Texas Interconnection, which receives very little power from outside the state.

It's also subject to less federal regulation because it doesn't cross state lines.

During the winter storm, many Texans were struck by both power outages and high electric bills. News reports cited charges as high as $17,000, but state Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) later announced that unpaid electric bills would be forgiven as part of a bankruptcy plan with company Griddy Energy.

At the time, Abbott sought to blame renewable energy, telling Fox News, "Our wind and our solar got shut down."

"That thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. ... It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary," he said in February.

But recent findings from energy regulators show that outages, slow downs and failures to start from natural gas represented 56 percent of the power lost, while wind represented 23 percent and coal represented 18 percent.

That report, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, said that the majority of the issues were caused by problems with freezing or fuel supply and recommended upgrades for power plants so they can operate in cold temperatures and measures to require natural gas infrastructure to protect against freezing.

The report is not the first of its kind - as in 2011, the two agencies similarly warned that the grid was not prepared for cold temperatures.

And while Steinhauser said he doesn't think that Democrats will be successful in making this a big issue next year, his opinion could change if additional problems occur.

"The only thing that would change my mind would be another event, an issue that actually occurs in real time, because people have short memories," he said.

Updated at 8:47 a.m.

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