Now that the worst of Texas’s winter storm is over, the question on the minds of many is what — or who — is at fault for the state’s lack of preparedness to a weeklong storm that left many without power or water. It’s too soon to know exactly how this will all unfold, but at least one recent survey shows that neither Gov. Greg Abbott nor Sen. Ted Cruz (who infamously fled the country for sunny Cancún “to be a good dad”) looks likely to suffer that much electorally. But Democrats are already busy trying to use Republicans’ response to the storm as ammo in the upcoming campaign season.
With multiple leaders of Texas’s dysfunctional power grid operator out, Abbott is an especially obvious target: His public messaging regarding the storm was criticized for being ill-prepared — at one point, he told residents to use Google to find life-saving information. And he was also among a chorus of political figures who quickly politicized the crisis by falsely claiming that green energy sources like wind and solar were main contributors to the blackouts. He’s also, perhaps most importantly, up for reelection in 2022. (Cruz is not on the ballot until 2024.)
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It’s not uncommon for politicians to face repercussions for a lackluster disaster response, but in Texas, Republicans control all levels of the state’s government, meaning Democrats definitely have their work cut out for them. And at this point, it’s more likely that Cruz and Abbott — or even embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton — will suffer a minor, but recoverable, blip in the polls than Democrats sweep Texas in 2022.
Democrats’ struggles in Texas certainly aren’t new: No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since 1994. There was hope that would change in 2020, two years after El Paso’s favorite son, Beto O’Rourke, came within sniffing distance of ousting Cruz and Democrats picked up two congressional seats and a dozen state House seats, bringing the minority party to a level it hadn’t seen in a decade. But if we can learn anything about Texas politics from the last election cycle, it’s that a small leftward lurch spurred by a fast-growing and diversifying population doesn’t necessarily equate to substantial Democratic gains. Last year, for instance, Texas Democrats flipped only one state House seat, but that gain was offset by a Republican candidate who narrowly beat his Democratic successor to reclaim his Houston-area seat. At the congressional level, Democrats didn’t pick up a single district.
Plus, since Cruz, who is widely disliked, is not up for reelection anytime soon, and former President Donald Trump is no longer on the ballot, there’s a shrinking list of vulnerable Texas Republicans. What’s left in terms of electoral gains for Democrats, then, are overwhelmingly red swaths of the state, where it will be harder to make inroads, especially given that border-area regions that typically lean Democratic are now in play, too. According to an analysis of the November election results by The New York Times, several counties along the Texas border shifted decisively toward Trump. In Starr County, for example, President Joe Biden bested Trump by only 5 percentage points; Hillary Clinton had won the same county by over 60 points in 2016. Other heavily Hispanic counties, like Maverick, Hidalgo and Cameron, also swung in Republicans’ favor — signaling that Biden and Democrats might have a real problem with Hispanic voters.
Having a popular and wealthy incumbent at the top of the Republican side of the ticket won’t help Democrats either; in 2022 the governor’s race will be the marquee contest, and Abbott has already said he wants a third term. And Abbott is no stranger to dealing with constituents’ ire. He has borne the brunt of Texans’ anger from both parties over the past year: Prominent conservative Republicans were mad at his statewide mask mandate and his liberal use of executive power during the pandemic; Democrats said Abbott prioritized businesses reopenings over keeping people safe and indoors. Even so, Republicans have largely stuck by him, as evidenced by both his massive, multimillion dollar war chest and his poll numbers. From late 2015 to October 2020, his approval rating among Republicans has hovered between 70 percent and 89 percent. Abbott’s approval ratings have dropped during the coronavirus pandemic — a recent University of Houston poll released prior to the storm put his approval rating at 39 percent, down from the high 40s in October of last year. But a mid-February survey from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune fielded at the height of the storm shows that public assessment of Abbott’s response to the pandemic has actually increased since October. According to the poll, 46 percent of respondents approved of Abbott’s job performance. Cruz also didn’t see a real dip in his numbers. In other words, especially considering Abbott won election by more than 20 points in 2014 and 13 points in 2018, it’s going to take a really big political fallout to place Abbott in jeopardy of losing reelection, and we just haven’t seen a sign of this yet.
That doesn’t mean Democrats have lost hope, though. O’Rourke’s name is, once again, in the limelight after he helped Texans get access to potable water and other goods during the recent winter storm. And weeks prior, he teased the possibility of a 2022 gubernatorial run, telling an El Paso radio station he was keeping his options open in the midst of the pandemic. The problem here is that O’Rourke’s detractors — and there are many, including some Texas Democrats — say his star has fallen since 2018. Polls say much of the same. An early February Data for Progress survey, for instance, found that 51 percent of Texas voters wanted Cruz to resign, but a higher share still held a favorable opinion of Cruz (49 percent) than of O’Rourke (33 percent). But, again, Cruz isn’t on the ballot next year. While no polls so far have tested a hypothetical head-to-head match-up between Abbott and O’Rourke, that recent University of Houston poll found O’Rourke’s approval rating at 35 percent — 4 points below Abbott’s.
In terms of other high-profile Democrats in the state, Julián Castro was the last Texas Democrat to run for national office besides O’Rourke. But the former housing and urban development secretary and San Antonio mayor has said it’s “very unlikely” he’ll run for office in 2022. Even if he changes his mind, he’s not the force O’Rourke once was. When Castro ran for president, he consistently polled below O’Rourke, and despite being the only Latino in the presidential race, he also never picked up ground with one of Texas’s fastest growing voting blocs: Hispanic voters. Other Democrats in the state who have received some national plaudits — former gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, Reps. Colin Allred, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, for example — have not indicated plans to run for higher office, leaving the party without a strong bench to draw from.
Regardless of whether Abbott faces political blowback, Democrats still have a hard road ahead of them as the state’s other top legislative lieutenants are still Republican. And this year, control of the legislature holds outsize importance because it means the GOP also controls the once-in-a-decade redrawing of the state’s political maps. In short, this means the legislature likely isn’t up for grabs in 2022 — some Republicans are already banking on Texas playing a part in the GOP taking back control of the U.S. House next year.
Ultimately, the biggest test for Democrats might be whether voters remember the damage and lives lost to the energy crisis when voters cast their ballots next year. While the party has already shown signs that it’s holding out hope, it’s way more likely that making inroads during the midterm elections will hinge on a lot more than one storm.