SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Weeks before last month’s deadly winter storm left millions of Texans shivering in their own powerless homes without running water and an electrical grid at the brink of collapse, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke was already floating the idea of a 2022 run for governor.
Then came the storm, battering the state with historic levels of snowfall and frigid temperature and causing extended power outages that exposed the state’s electrical vulnerabilities and led to as many as 80 deaths. It was, by most accounts, a crisis on top of a crisis, as grocery stores ran out of food and pandemic-fatigued residents became desperate for basic necessities like clean water and heat.
But it also created a political opening for O’Rourke, the one-time 2020 presidential candidate who, in a flashback to his blockbuster Senate run in 2018, documented himself barnstorming communities across the state, bringing his social media followers along for the ride. Only this time it was to livestream his welfare checks with seniors, rally donations for storm victims and deliver pallets of water to hard-hit Texans from his pickup truck.
“For the most part people seem to be doing okay,” O’Rourke said in a video broadcast last week on Facebook Live from the border town of Zapata. “The biggest complaint I think that I’ve heard, and this has been almost consistent across other parts of the state is, ‘I wish I knew this was happening and if I had known I could’ve prepared.’”
And for O’Rourke, that means Republican Governor Greg Abbott is an obvious target. As the two-term governor, Abbott faced immediate criticism for the state’s lackluster disaster response and his failure to offer a consistent explanation as to why Texas’ power grid was not prepared for the surge in consumption.
O’Rourke’s former rival, Senator Ted Cruz, also faced backlash of his own for jetting off to Cancún “to be a good dad” at the peak of the storm’s devastation. But Cruz, who flew back to Houston a day after he departed and claimed it was his daughters who asked to take the trip, is not up for reelection until 2024.
For his part, Abbott, who said he would seek a third term next year, has repeatedly slammed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for its handling of the blackouts and called for an investigation into the grid operator. The crisis led to the resignations of seven members of the ERCOT board and a demand from state lawmakers for answers.
“What did Gov. Abbott know? When did he know it? And what did he do with it?” O’Rourke wrote in one of many tweets attacking Abbott since the storm. On Tuesday, O’Rourke used Abbott’s lifting of the state’s mask mandate to slam the governor for his management of the Covid-19 pandemic, calling the decision “a death warrant for Texans.”
“Add them to the 44,000+ killed as he failed to confront the pandemic & botched the vaccine rollout. And those who froze to death because he cares more about energy companies’ profits than keeping Texans alive…Abbott is killing the people of Texas,” he wrote on Twitter.
“I certainly think that Beto did himself a lot of good,” said Matt Angle, a Texas-based Democratic strategist and campaign consultant who founded the Lone Star Project. “In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Beto O’Rourke did more public service as a former elected official than Greg Abbott or any elected official did as current elected officials.”
Analysts say Abbott has been politically wounded, at least temporarily, from the winter storm and his pandemic response, but it remains an open question whether that will translate into any electoral gains for Texas Democrats in an election 20 months away.
Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy, said the winter storm not only weakened Abbott, but it also provided O’Rourke with an opportunity to reach out to voters in a positive and productive way.
“I think Beto has had his eyes on a gubernatorial bid and I think he’s been weighing the pros and the cons of running and I think, without question, the debacle related to the winter storm has more likely than not given him encouragement to run,” he said in an interview.
Jones argued that the higher-than-normal voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections in which O’Rourke challenged Cruz benefited the former El Paso congressman, but added that “what we saw in 2020 is that Republicans were able to counter that Democratic enthusiasm with their own mobilization efforts.”
“But the higher the turnout is in 2022, the more likely it is to benefit Beto O’Rourke rather than Greg Abbott simply because, on average, those people who stay home tend to lean more Democratic than Republican,” Jones said.
While O’Rourke acknowledged in a January radio interview that running for governor was “something I’m going to think about,” he more recently tamped down any immediate plans, telling Vanity Fair’s “Inside the Hive” podcast that he was putting his energy toward his teaching jobs at Texas State University and the University of Texas at Austin, and continuing his work with his volunteer organization Powered by People, which helped him raise over a million dollars in donations for storm victims.
“I want to make sure that I’m focused on that and I’m focused on doing what I can in this current crisis,” he said on the Feb. 19 episode. “And then down the road think about whether there is a role for me to play in supporting those who are running for office or perhaps seeking office myself.”
While Democrats in Texas still have an uphill battle to win back any statewide offices in the solidly red state controlled by the GOP since the 1990s, O’Rourke is back in the spotlight.
And for a politician who famously remarked that he was “born” to run for president, it might be just where he wants to be.
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