Ross Ramsey

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott feels the heat: analysis

"Analysis: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott feels the heat" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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It's so hot. So humid. And so hard to change the subject when Texans are worried about whether there's enough electricity for their air conditioners.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to talk about building a wall between Texas and Mexico — a top concern for the Republican voters whose favor he hopes to enjoy in next year's GOP primary and general election. He's bringing former President Donald Trump to the state this month for a visit to the border, a way to showcase the problems there and also to show those Republican voters that their most popular national leader is pals with their governor.

But the weather is in the way. More to the point: Doubts about the reliability of the state's electric grid — there to protect all Texans from the weather — is in the way. The grid seems a little too wobbly in the face of early summer heat, after it failed in cold weather earlier this year. Having elected officials patting you on the head and telling you not to worry is less effective when your electric company is urging you to move the thermostat up to 82 degrees.

The weather right now in Texas is not unusual, but our readiness is suspect. Temperatures are rising to levels that also raise the eyebrows of electric companies and their regulators. With air conditioners running almost full time, demand for electricity is alarmingly close to supply. That raises the prospect of brownouts, when the power cycles on and off in parts of the state to cut demand, and blackouts, when the power shuts down completely.

That's not a happy situation in normal times, but after hundreds of Texans were killed by statewide blackouts during a winter storm in February, people are jittery — for perfectly understandable reasons. Many Texans had no electricity for more than half a week at a time when outside temperatures were well below freezing. People died, some from the cold and some from ill-fated attempts to stay warm.

The rest of us lost faith in the state's electric grid — in the ability of the people who operate and regulate the electric industry in Texas to keep the power on when it's most needed.

Summer heat is just as dangerous as winter cold. It's the more familiar peril of the Texas climate — the one our electric grid was presumably built to withstand. One refrain in legislative debate after the freeze was that power plants and natural gas suppliers should fortify themselves against winter weather; the line that often went along with that was that the Texas grid was built for summer weather, but not for cold.

But here we are. It's not the first time hot weather has taxed the grid to its limits. And it's true that we hit 100-degree temperatures in some parts of the state earlier than normal this year. The really hot weather is still ahead.

Lawmakers made some big changes this session to address the problems that left the state vulnerable to winter weather. The governor signed the bills this month, proclaiming the grid fixed. “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas," Abbott said last week.

But this week, everybody has had their eyes on ERCOT — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — to watch a daily competition between the amount of electricity available and the amount of electricity demanded. They're rooting for “available," too aware after February of the scary things that can happen when demand wins the race and Texans who need power can't get it.

It's a trust thing. At the beginning of February, it's safe to assume that most Texans had no idea what ERCOT is, what it does or why it's important. And because the state's electric generators couldn't produce the power they were obligated to produce during that storm, forcing ERCOT to order blackouts, we've all got the fidgets.

What wasn't even entering our minds a few months ago is now front and center. We're not taking our electricity for granted at the moment. ERCOT's forecasts for this summer were that heat-related blackouts were possible. Now the prospect is real: The heat and the air conditioners and our memories of February are making it hard for the governor to direct our attention to his efforts to deal with an increase in migrants at the border.

He insisted Wednesday — emphatically and in a raised voice — that his call for a border wall isn't driven by politics, and that anyone who says otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about.

Texans might be distracted by thoughts of losing the flow of electricity that runs our coolers and fans, our homes, businesses, hospitals and all the other things that help keep us alive. But Abbott dismissed anxiety about electricity, saying, “The energy grid in Texas is better today than it's ever been."

See? All better.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/17/texas-greg-abbott-ercot/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas' top Republican lawyers are already skipping the honeymoon with the Biden administration: analysis

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Jan. 22, 2021

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If you would like to listen to the column, just click on the play button below.

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Have a look at what the top attorneys for the state of Texas were offering on the day Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as president and vice president.

“My statement on Inauguration Day," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted from his agency's official account. “Congrats, President Biden. On Inauguration Day, I wish our country the best. I promise my fellow Texans and Americans that I will fight against the many unconstitutional and illegal actions that the new administration will take, challenge federal overreach that infringes on Texans' rights, and serve as a major check against the administration's lawlessness. Texas First! Law & Order always!"

One of his deputy attorneys general, Aaron Reitz, retweeted that with his own topspin on the new chief executive of the United States: “Excited for the fight ahead. We will fight Joe Biden and the Democrats at every turn, because virtually everything they do is unconstitutional, illegal, bad for Texas, and bad for America."

Warms your little red, white and blue heart, doesn't it?

While the Republican attorney general and his deputies were suiting up for fights that haven't had time to start and tagging the newly seated Democrats as lawless before those Democrats have actually done anything, the new president was calling for unity.

“The answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don't look like you or worship the way you do or don't get their news from the same sources you do," Biden said. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes."

Unity was the theme of Biden's inaugural address. “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path," he said. “Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war."

It's like trying to reason with a cloud of hungry mosquitoes. To be more charitable about it, calming the partisans is going to require a lot of political rehab.

And to be fair, a number of elected Texas Republicans said they'd like to try working together. At least on the first day, people like U.S. Reps. Van Taylor of Plano and Beth Van Duyne of Irving unclenched their fists and offered to pitch in.

Paxton's contrarian streak isn't new; he was one of the speakers at the Trump rally in Washington two weeks ago that spawned the invasion of the U.S. Capitol. And he's not speaking outside the tradition of his state office. His predecessor, Gov. Greg Abbott, served as AG during the Obama administration. Abbott turned his resistance into a campaign line: “My job's pretty simple. I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and then I go home."

It sounds like a state-federal beef, but this isn't about federalism and states' rights — it's about Republicans vs. Democrats.

While Biden is trying to de-escalate — and he's not alone here; there are Republicans working on the same project — the public will have to weigh in before the conversation will change.

The partisans are putting on these shows for the rest of us, for voters who have been so anxious and excitable about politics in recent years — and particularly during the presidency of Donald Trump. His skill at holding the crowd's attention and driving the public's emotion provided a lesson for the lesser lights in politics and government.

Trump has helicoptered away, but his devotees in public office are still following the playbook, confident that the same crowds who followed him will now turn and follow them.

It's the voters themselves who are being tested. Do they yearn for more of the kind of political tension they've been getting for the last four years — and honestly, for a good long time before that — or do they want something to happen after all the bickering?

More of the same, or something different?

Texans in office at all levels of government do a lot of the things that they do for an audience of voters. They are remarkably sensitive to public sentiment, and here's the thing about that: If they perform in a particular way, that's their read on what the public wants. What you see from them is what they think you want.

Maybe that means Texans want to hobble the new federal administration with lawsuits. Maybe they want everybody in public office to settle down for a little while. Maybe voters are still split; this unity thing is hard.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/01/22/biden-texas-republicans/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ted Cruz is fighting for the president — but here's the real prize: analysis

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Jan. 6, 2021

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If you would like to listen to the column, just click on the play button below.

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz once said he wouldn't “go like a servile puppy dog" back to Donald Trump after denying the presidential nominee his endorsement at the GOP's 2016 national convention.

Now Cruz is leading the charge to challenge the 2020 election results that made Democrat Joe Biden the president-elect and Trump the first incumbent president to lose reelection since George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Woof, woof.

There is often a difference between what's happening and what people think is happening.

There is a difference, for instance, between allegations and evidence. Cruz shared his rationale for what he's doing with Fox News on Sunday: “We've seen in the last two months unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, and that's produced a deep, deep distrust of our democratic process across the country. I think we in Congress have an obligation to do something about that."

That flower will wilt or bloom within the next few hours, when Congress convenes to certify the Electoral College votes reported by the states. Cruz and other Trumpsters want to reject Biden's electors and form a commission to investigate allegations of fraud — in elections that have already been certified, one by one, by the states, and where dozens of legal challenges have been rejected by the courts.

Some of the politicos who'd normally be riding with Cruz disagree with him this time. Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas both plan to oppose the election deniers. So does U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin, a former Cruz chief of staff who's ordinarily right in line with his former boss.

The ideological lines are blurred. The political lines are not.

The early speculation has Cruz among the Republicans seeking his party's presidential nomination in 2024, one on a list of names that will change constantly according to the volatile breezes of public opinion and attention. It's worth remembering that GOP primary voters in Texas gave Cruz 43.8% of their votes in a 13-candidate primary in 2016; Trump was second, almost half a million votes behind the leader.

Four years from now, Cruz will be up for reelection to the Senate, if he wants another term. Texas election law has a provision, known as the LBJ law, that would allow him to run for Senate and the presidency at the same time.

And those votes have flipped. GOP voters are crazy for Trump, and Cruz and all the other wannabes want to catch as many of those voters as they can when Trump leaves the White House. It doesn't matter when that happens, whether it's in two weeks or four years. Trump's opinion is a short-term concern for Cruz and company, but those voters will still be here: Offending them now could be costly in four years.

Another political campaign would be unlike Cruz's first run for office, when he shocked the GOP establishment by beating then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2012 on his way to the U.S. Senate. Or his second one, when the freshman senator from Texas hung in until almost the end of that 2016 presidential race, outlasting much more seasoned politicians before falling, as everyone did, to Trump.

You'll remember that Cruz went out with a bang that year, telling GOP conventioneers to vote their conscience instead of endorsing the victor, blasting Trump for disparaging his wife and his father, and ending with that famous line about the bootlicking puppy.

His reelection bid in 2018, after six years of hard political mileage, was rougher than the earlier rounds. Cruz prevailed against U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, who turned animosity toward Trump and Cruz into a maul, raising millions of dollars and turning the race into a close one before falling 2.6 percentage points short of an upset.

Cruz won, but it wasn't the sort of win that makes future opponents think twice, especially those who might be in contention for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2024. It's never too early to gather supporters. The 2022 elections are just around the corner — at least in the minds of politicians and consultants and their ilk — and favors won then can be cashed in 2024, when Cruz will need them.

First, he needs to be where the voters are, and the Republican voters are with Trump. So's Cruz.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/01/06/ted-cruz-election-certification/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas soundly rebuffs Democratic efforts to turn the state purple: analysis

"Analysis: Texas voters still fly a red political flag" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

Texas is not blue, but after this latest election, its Democrats are.

The party's latest effort to turn Texas its way fell short on Tuesday. Democrats got no wins in statewide races from the presidency to the high courts, and the party's elected officials remain in the minorities of the congressional delegation, the Texas Senate and the Texas House.

Still, Texas Democrats have steadily made it more difficult for Republicans to get things done when the Democrats don't want to go along. With the 2020 general election behind us, the Republican state House majority is intact, but small. The GOP advantage in the Senate has shrunk again, to the point where Republicans will need to change their rules or be forced to win Democratic support to bring legislation before the full Senate for debate.

If the issues of the day were not enough to force Texas lawmakers into practical things, the politics would be.

Those “practical things" are numerous.

The pandemic continues to require action from the state, and many legislators want a say in a response that has so far been a solo act for Gov. Greg Abbott, who's been relying on emergency powers to control everything from business closings to rules for wearing masks.

The staggering economic impact of the pandemic has cut deeply into state revenues, leaving lawmakers with a multibillion-dollar hole in the current two-year budget and larger problems for the two-year budget they will have to write in 2021. The session's financial troubles will start with the first and move to the second, an unwelcome invitation to either cut spending or to find new money to spend.

Issues raised by the killing of George Floyd and others at the hands of police will be on the agenda, including police training, funding, and the liabilities and responsibilities of officers for their own actions on the job.

Lawmakers will probably take up voting and election laws, a persistent source of litigation and argument during this election cycle and an area of law ripe for legislative tinkering and remodeling.

They'll tackle redistricting, drawing political maps that could be used for federal and state legislative races for up to the next 10 years — the issue that persuaded out-of-state Democrats and Republicans to pump millions of dollars into Texas House races this year.

And they'll be doing all of that in a Texas Capitol where social interaction is limited, where there has been talk of limiting the number of bills in order to minimize risks, and of limiting public access to the proceedings.

It's not going to be the kind of session where politicians spend their time arguing about proposed regulations on which bathrooms transgender individuals may use. They have real work to do.

And they have real politics in their way. The Senate, which has been the more conservative chamber for several sessions, has been limited by what it could get past the more moderate, but still Republican House. And the Senate lost a Republican vote on Tuesday night, cutting into the Republican majority there.

It's not that the place became more liberal in this election. The Democrats, with a very few exceptions, fell short.

But what's left is a House with a narrow Republican majority, a Senate with one more Democrat than before, and a Republican governor trying to keep all of the party's factions moving in the same direction.

Texas is not as reliably red as some might think, but after the contentious and expensive 2020 elections, the Democrats haven't been able to make it a blue one.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/04/texas-elections-republicans/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

This is the hardest state to vote in: analysis

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

It's harder than in 49 other states, according to a “cost-of-voting index" compiled by political scientists at Northern Illinois University, Jacksonville University and Wuhan University in China.

Obviously, it's not impossible to vote in Texas; more than 10% of the state's registered voters — about 2 million citizens — had already cast their ballots, either in person or by mail, by Thursday night. That's certainly a sign of enthusiasm, and could either be a signal of a bigger-than-normal turnout or that a lot of Texas were itching to vote and did so as soon as they could.

But the state has erected obstacles throughout the voting system, and when you compare the comfort and convenience of voting in Texas with other states, Texas ends up at the bottom of the list.

Voting and election law is a persistent struggle in Texas between those who want to knock down impediments to voting and those who think more safeguards are needed to secure the process and the results — though the evidence for this is both anecdotal and thin.

That particular battlefield ranges from voter ID to current legal battles over how many drop-offs each county is allowed to provide for voters who would rather not put their absentee ballots in the mail, who's eligible to vote by mail and whether counties with curbside voting are making things too simple.

Here's how the researchers wrote up our state's position on the list: “Texas maintains an in-person voter registration deadline 30 days prior to Election Day, has reduced the number of polling stations in some parts of the state by more than 50% and has the most restrictive pre-registration law in the country, according to the analysis."

States at the top of the list — where it's easiest to vote — have voting conveniences that aren't available here, like online voter registration, automatic voter registration and allowing voters to register as late as Election Day. (The Texas deadline was Oct. 5.)

Some have universal mail-in voting, which the study considers a hallmark of a state where it's easy to vote. In Texas, voting by mail is only available to people ages 65 and older, to eligible voters confined to jail, for voters who are out of their county of residence during voting, and for voters who cite a disability that prevents them from safely going to the polls.

And higher-rated states require only a signature for in-person voting, instead of tight voter photo identification laws like the one in Texas.

Texas has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, turning out 45.6% of its population of eligible voters in 2018, compared with a national average of 49.4%, according to the United States Election Project. In the last presidential race, in 2016, turnout was 51.4% of the state's eligible voters, a number that includes adults eligible to vote whether they registered or not. The national average was 60.1%.

The cost-of-voting index is an update of a study that includes indexes for elections back to 1996. In 2016, Texas was fifth from the bottom of the list, in company with Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi. This time around, Texas is behind every other state, in the bottom of the barrel with Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Maybe the low turnout in Texas is related to the state's restrictive voting laws. Maybe eligible adults in Texas are less interested in voting, and the state's voting laws are just an excuse for the low civic engagement.

There's a way to find out, if state lawmakers' goal is to get more Texans voting. If they wanted more people to vote, they'd make it easier.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/19/texas-voting-elections/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

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