On The Trail: The political perils of Snowmageddon

As Texas struggles through a historic freeze that burst water pipes and sent frigid residents under mounds of blankets, its political leaders are in hot water.

In the hours after the first rolling blackouts struck the state earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) misleadingly placed blame on renewable sources that make up only a fraction of Texas’s energy portfolio.

Officials said the state had been just minutes away from a catastrophic blackout that could have lasted for months, a disaster that would have resulted from the dangerous lack of preparation at utilities that are regulated far less strictly than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) abruptly ended an ill-timed vacation to Cancun, Mexico, after being photographed in Houston’s airport as his constituents sought warmth.

The fallout — financial, medical and political — will be felt long after the snows melt away. History suggests that memories of the blizzard will haunt those who failed to prepare.

“If Texas mishandles the snowfall, which is likely because they have so little snow experience, it could cause [Republicans] to lose some races in 2022,” said Dick Simpson, a native Texan who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Simpson, a former Chicago alderman, retired from public office in 1979, the same year Mayor Michael Bilandic badly mishandled a two-day snowstorm. In the midst of the flurry, snowplows were slow to hit the streets. Bilandic ordered Chicago’s “L” trains to bypass stops in majority-Black neighborhoods.

Only a few months later, Bilandic lost the Democratic primary for renomination to Jane Byrne (D), who had cut campaign advertisements standing in the snow.

Three years later, two feet of snow covered Denver on Christmas Eve, a storm so bad that neither the Denver Post nor the Rocky Mountain News published newspapers the following morning. The city was so slow to clear the streets that Mayor Bill McNichols lost his reelection bid to then-state Rep. Federico Peña (D), who went on to serve two terms before joining former President Clinton’s Cabinet.

And in 2008, snow buried the streets of Seattle for two weeks after an environmental initiative spearheaded by Mayor Greg Nickels — who ordered the city to use sand to clear the roads rather than salt — flopped. Nickels finished a distant third in the following year’s primary election.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D) both came under withering fire for committing Cruz-like offenses when the Northeast was socked by a snowstorm in 2010. Christie was vacationing in Florida, Bloomberg in Bermuda. 

“Officeholders spend part of their time, especially when meeting with constituents, demonstrating competence,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) were pilloried for a weak response to an ice and snowstorm in 2014. “When things don’t work as expected, something is obviously wrong and someone is responsible. Failure to remove snow quickly or to restore electricity results in huge inconvenience, may be expensive, may threaten health.”

Snow is not the only weather-related threat to a politician’s good standing; any potential disaster for which a leader has not prepared can carry a political cost.

The government’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina — at both the state and federal levels — helped crater both President George W. Bush and then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D).

The week after the storm hit New Orleans in August 2005, Gallup measured Bush’s approval rating at 46 percent. He never scored that high again. Blanco, elected governor a year and a half before the killer storm, did not even bother to run for reelection. Two Democrats vying to replace her managed to win only 30 percent of the vote against the man who had lost to Blanco in 2003, Republican Bobby Jindal.

Even the coronavirus pandemic has become a measure by which executives are judged. A massive public opinion survey conducted by researchers at Northeastern University, Rutgers, Harvard and Northwestern University in November found that voters gave the highest marks to governors who had enacted some of the strictest lockdown measures.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R), Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) scored the highest approval ratings. Fewer than 4 in 10 of their constituents approved of the jobs done by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) — all of whom resisted issuing statewide mask mandates common in most other states (Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat who did issue mask mandates, also suffered deeply poor approval ratings).

“If you are in office and the disaster happens on your watch, then by definition, you did not respond efficiently or take appropriate precautions. Like a coach who has a disastrous season and is fired, the voters fire the officeholder,” Bullock said.

The weather maps show Texas covered this week by a frigid blue, but the political map has yet to change its recent ruby red. Abbott, who faces reelection next year, starts as an odds-on favorite, in part because no serious Democrat has entered the race.

But Texas is moving slowly into a competitive space. Abbott’s statewide vote share has dropped in his last three elections — from 64 percent in his final election as attorney general, to 59 percent in his 2014 gubernatorial election and to 56 percent in his 2018 reelection bid. Cruz, too, saw his vote share drop, from 56 percent in 2012 to 51 percent in 2018.

Former President Trump won 52 percent of the vote in Texas in 2020, the lowest share of any Republican since Ross Perot took a share of what might otherwise have been Bob Dole’s vote in 1996 — though both Trump and President Biden took more raw votes than any previous presidential nominees in Texas history.

Democrats have not yet been able to convince a critical mass of Texas voters that the Republican approach to governing the state has not worked. The massive snowstorm that has blanketed the state may just give them another chance.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on elections.

Tags Bill Clinton Brian Kemp Charlie Baker Chris Christie Crisis Donald Trump Doug Ducey Energy Greg Abbott Joe Biden Kristi Noem Michael Bloomberg Michael Pilandic Pete Ricketts Phil Murphy POWER snowstorm Ted Cruz Texas

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