Analysis: In Texas, cold weather brings a political chill

Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference in Austin on Tuesday to discuss preparations ahead of a winter storm. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune, Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

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Lots of Texans have the shivers right now — some because it’s supposed to turn cold this week, and some because of memories of what cold weather brought to the state a year ago this month.

What is predicted this week — a couple of days of hard freezes, with precipitation in parts of the state — is milder than the polar vortex that froze most of Texas for days in a row. High demands for heat and light during that storm outstripped the available supply of electricity, which was diminished by the storm’s effects on electric generating plants and their fuel suppliers.

Chances are, you won’t lose power this time. Don’t you wish that was a certainty?

The state’s top leaders are hoping they won’t lose power, too, and their concerns go beyond the electric grid that covers most of the state.

The last two weeks have been harbingers of the political year ahead, starting with a herd of Republicans holding news conferences at the Texas-Mexico border and ending with Democrats talking about cold weather and the electric grid.

Republicans blame a Democratic administration in Washington, D.C., for huge increases in the number of people trying to cross into the U.S. over the last year. Democrats blame this energy state’s Republican government for the failure of the electric grid last year, causing blackouts that left millions without power for several days in freezing temperatures and killed hundreds of Texans. Both parties want you to believe the sky is falling and that the other party broke it.

Now comes the acid test. Texas forecasters say cold weather is coming in the next few days. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott rounded up the people you see behind the tables whenever the weather is foul, talking about preparations for the storm and including, for this weather event, some of the state’s electric and natural gas regulators.

In late November, Abbott was wishing right along with the rest of us when he told Fox 7 News in Austin that “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.” His office and his appointees reinforced that confident boast with a PR campaign through the end of the year.

They are projecting confidence that the electric generators have been winterized and that their sources of fuel — primarily natural gas — won’t be hobbled by the cold like they were a year ago.

But that gubernatorial guarantee, questionable as it was, is off.

“No one can guarantee there won’t be a ‘load shed’ event,” Abbott said Tuesday. Load shedding is the term for shutting off electric power to groups of customers to keep demand below supply; it’s a power outage.

The governor is not expecting a repeat of last year. He’s finally nodding to reality: Demand for power could outstrip supply; trees could fall and take out transmission lines; it was always highly unlikely that no place in the state would go dark for a few hours and maybe for a few days.

Texans are nervous about it. Our memories of last year’s frozen blackout are still fresh. And there is a primary election just ahead: Voters are in a spot to grade the governor’s paper after this and other cold weather this month. Early voting starts Feb. 14, and the primary is March 1.

The political situation is way down the list of things normal people are worried about. They want to stay warm and safe, and their confidence about that was shaken by last year’s storm.

It’s evident, however, in the prep for this week’s cold snap. The governor, who’s on the Republican primary ballot and has been busy with border press conferences, TV ads, fundraising and all the rest, pulled together the officials and the regulators who’ll be getting the credit if the lights and the heat stay on, and the blame if they don’t. They were reassuring, saying they’re ready for the cold and what it might bring.

Democrats are getting ready, too, for the politics of this stretch of winter. Beto O’Rourke, the best-known of the Democratic candidates for governor, is on what he calls a “keeping the lights on” tour, hoping voters will hold Abbott accountable for what happened last year, and hoping cold temperatures will rekindle their anger.

There is a lot of power at stake — both kinds.

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