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Beto O’Rourke makes the Texas winter storm a key part of his campaign against Governor Greg Abbott

A week into his run for Texas governor, Beto O’Rourke argues the recovery effort following the historic winter storm is evidence for a political shake-up in Austin.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Earlier this year, Texas endured four days of a crippling winter storm that led to the failure of the state's electrical grid and contributed to the deaths of hundreds. As Texas’ gubernatorial race heats up with former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke being the latest addition from the Democratic Party, the Texas freeze plays a large role in his message to become the top public official in the state.

O’Rourke announced his candidacy for governor on Monday in a video posted to Twitter. His remarks began with recapping the events of the winter storm and the suffering many Texans endured during the days-long disaster. O'Rourke said that people were “abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them.”

On Thursday, O’Rourke traveled to Brownsville, Texas, where he met with local leaders to discuss safety in Texas communities. At the event, he said that Texas is still under threat of another debilitating freeze.

“Our state Legislature and our governor did nothing to prepare us for the winter storm last February, and despite the regular legislative session and the special sessions that followed, they’ve done nothing to prepare us for the next winter storm to come,” said O’Rourke.

At the onset of what is to become a heavily watched governor’s race, O’Rourke has made the largely bipartisan issue of electrical grid reliability both a key campaign message, as well as a counter-message to Governor Greg Abbott’s message that the grid has been fixed. 

Joshua Blank, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said in an interview that at the start of his campaign, O’Rourke wants to frame this election as a referendum on Governor Abbott. 

“The best issue O’Rourke could focus on, from a tactical standpoint, is the winter storm,” said Blank. 

Blank points out that in Texas, the public overwhelmingly views the state’s response to the winter storm negatively.  

In a poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune this past October, respondents showed that the reliability of the Texas grid is still on their minds. Sixty percent of Texas registered voters disapproved of how lawmakers handled fixing the grid in the past legislative session. That is compared to the 18% who approved of the work lawmakers did and the 22% that either does not know or have no opinion on the matter.

The political opportunity this creates is for the governor and Republicans to be framed as not handling the essential function of the government to protect the well-being of the people. This framing allows O’Rourke to launch his campaign with contrasting messaging against Abbott and not having to focus as much on issues that Democrats have struggled to combat such as the debate over public school teaching and immigration.  

Lawmakers passed several bills aimed at preventing another widespread power outage. Most notably among them was Senate Bill 3, which answered the call from many to “weatherize” the grid, something that regulators have called for as late as 2011. Ten years later, those same regulators, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation have released a final report, detailing the causes of the grid failure and echoing recommendations made a decade prior.

In June, Governor Abbott signed these bills into law saying, “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.” However, SB 3 has its own set of issues that have been discovered since taking effect. Natural gas companies can opt-out of weatherization requirements through what state senators referred to as a loophole during a September meeting with the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce.

Wei Wang, executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that oversees the oil and gas industry in the state, said during the committee meeting that natural gas companies just need to invoke the language of the law to skirt requirements. 

“If the company says they are not prepared to operate during an emergency, then they are not designated as critical and will not receive electricity during a weather emergency,” said Wang.  

According to the United States Energy Information Administration, Texas’ primary energy source is natural gas. During the winter storm, it was natural gas producers that experienced issues and led to the blackout.

Blank described the issue of the electrical grid can be worse now for Republicans in the event of another disaster. 

“If another outage happens, there is no possibility of casting blame anywhere other than legislators and state leaders,” said Blank.   

What could make the difference in this election is how well both candidates can mobilize their supporters and how much the state's electricity issues will impact Independents'.

With midterm elections a year away, candidates will have more time to make their case that the electrical grid was fixed or that there is still more to be done that is not being pursued. The true test, which would prove to be a more political force than before, is another debilitating freeze.

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