The brutal winter storm that turned Texas roads to ice, burst pipes across the state and left millions of residents shivering and without power has also damaged the reputations of three of the state’s leading Republicans.
Sen. Ted Cruz was discovered to have slipped off to Mexico on Wednesday night, only to announce his return when he was caught in the act. Gov. Greg Abbott came under fire over his leadership and misleading claims about the causes of the power outages. And former Gov. Rick Perry suggested Texans preferred power failures to federal regulation, a callous note in a moment of widespread suffering.
It’s more than just a public relations crisis for the three politicians. The storm has also battered the swaggering, Texas brand of free-market governance that’s central to the state’s political identity on the national stage.
"Texans are angry and they have every right to be. Failed power, water and communications surely took some lives,” JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative activist and executive director of a group called Grassroots America, said in a text message exchange with POLITICO.
“The Texas electric grid is not secure,” said Fleming, pointing out that lawmakers “have been talking about shoring up/protecting the Texas electric grid for THREE legislative sessions (6 yrs),” but “every session special energy interests kill the bills with Republicans in charge … Our politicians spend too much time listening to monied lobbyists & political consultants. Not enough time actually listening to real people.”
Chad Prather, a popular Republican humorist who is running for governor against Abbott next year, echoed similar sentiments about the three politicians.
“There’s no question that this is a case of failing to relate to the people of Texas,” said Prather, who is a host on the conservative network Blaze TV.
“I believe the person with the biggest consequence is going to be Greg Abbott,” Prather said. “The underlying murmur is that he, too, will make a presidential run and the governorship has become much of an afterthought. It would seem we are a little vacant at the top. At least that’s how many feel.”
One Texas GOP official, who did not want to be on record criticizing three of the state’s top Republicans, deadpanned that “this is not our party’s finest hour.”
A spokesperson for Abbott said the governor is focusing on the crisis, not politics, and is trying to find a solution.
Abbott has called for an investigation of the state’s main power grid, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which was once a source of laissez-faire pride because it’s heavily deregulated and separate from the federal power grid. On Thursday, Abbott called for winterizing the power grid to keep wind turbines and natural gas in pipes from freezing — an idea recommended a decade ago after the last severe winter storm, when Perry was governor.
Abbott’s moves follow widespread criticism for an appearance with Fox News’ Sean Hannity in which he echoed a misleading claim attacking renewable energy as a root of the problem. Perry did the same thing in a blog post on the website of U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, but then went an extra step.
“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry wrote. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.”
Unmentioned by Perry: He was governor in 2011, when experts recommended winterizing the power grid. Perry went on to run for president in 2012, then was reelected governor two years later, ran unsuccessfully for president again in 2016 and served as then-President Donald Trump’s secretary of Energy from 2017 to 2019.
George Seay, who served as finance chair for Perry’s 2012 presidential bid, said that he opposes the “finger-pointing” over the storm response and believes Abbott is unfairly being attacked, but that the current governor needs to take some responsibility for the situation.
“Leaders have to say, not only is this unacceptable, not only is it a dereliction of duty to Texas citizens and their public safety and the common good, but we have to fess up for that,” Seay said. “The governor is not a power generation expert, but he needs to raise his hand and say, ‘I’m responsible for this.’ It’s not fair to him, to be clear, but that’s the job.”
Seay said Cruz’s decision to slip off to Mexico — only to announce his return when word leaked out and he drew harsh criticism — won’t harm him nearly as much as his role in opposing the Electoral College certification in Congress on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.
“Is he focused on issues that center on the good of Texas? Not really. He’s focused on running for president in 2024 and political machinations,” Seay said. “The blame-seeking and circular firing squads we’re seeing is not helpful.”
Democrats, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to contrast Republican leadership in Texas with President Joe Biden’s administration, which quickly offered full federal help and earlier pitched plans to upgrade infrastructure, counter climate change and expand the use of renewable energy.
“Whether it’s Abbott’s failed response or Cruz’s abandoning of our state, we shouldn’t put people in charge of government who don’t believe in government. They fail us every time,” said former federal Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a Democrat who’s considering a bid against Abbott or Cruz.
Cruz’s short-circuited Cancun trip made him the biggest target of all. His habit of attacking politicians for taking time off during a disaster, his mocking of California for its power woes and his letter to Biden last week to keep the U.S.-Mexico border as closed as possible due to Covid have all come back to haunt him.
Democrats sought to heighten the contrast between Cruz and his 2018 Senate opponent, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, by pointing out that the senator went to Cancun and tweeted about the death of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh while his former rival stayed in El Paso and tried to marshal his social media followers to help fellow Texans.
“It’s extremely important in governing and politics to be seen doing things,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist. “It’s important to be seen leading.”
Steinhauser said Abbott established himself as a leader in previous crises but took longer after the storm because he “had to find his footing. At first, he probably didn’t think the blackouts would last as long as they did.”
Chris Perkins, a Republican data analyst and pollster in the state, said there’s lots of anger and frustration to go around.
“There’s no playbook because the state has never seen a winter like this in its history,” Perkins said. “The cities are saying to boil the water, but there’s no water coming out of the faucet. Use gas to boil the water, but wells are freezing, so conserve gas. The state leaders are attempting to give the public the most updated information, but it’s difficult since there isn’t a historical manual on what to do.”
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