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AUSTIN (Nexstar) – In an effort to energize voters for the upcoming midterm elections, President Joe Biden promised Tuesday to make codifying Roe v. Wade his first legislative priority next year if — and that’s a big if — Democrats can retain control of Congress. Voters here in Texas could help to make that either easier or more difficult to deliver this November.

Three of the most competitive Congressional races in the country, for example, are all happening in South Texas. Republicans are counting on a trio of Latina candidates there, known by their supporters as the “Texas Triple Threat,” to help push their party back into the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. If the balance of power changes in Congress, it would undoubtedly stymie any effort by the president to pursue this kind of legislation. Biden admitted as much in his speech Tuesday in front of a banner that read “Restore Roe.”

“The Court got Roe right nearly 50 years ago, and I believe Congress should codify Roe once and for all,” Biden told a crowd in Washington. “Right now, we’re short a handful of votes. If you care about the right to choose, then you’ve got to vote. That’s why in these midterm elections they’re so critical to elect more Democratic senators to the United States Senate and more Democrats to keep control of the House of Representatives.”

Recent polls show abortion access among the most important issues for Texas voters during the upcoming election, but that’s regularly eclipsed by either the economy or inflation. The Marist Poll released last week found that 16% of Texans listed abortion as top of mind for them, but that’s behind either inflation (28%) or preserving democracy (21%). A September poll from Emerson College and the Nexstar Media Group, KXAN’s parent company, showed the economy as the top issue for 40% of Texas voters — followed by abortion access (16%), immigration (12%) and health care (8%). 

Texas political experts said the snapshots these samplings provide suggest the Democrats’ messaging should not focus solely on abortion protections three weeks ahead of the election.

“Young people and already people solidly in the Democratic column are the people that Biden was appealing to with the speech today,” Walter Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Tuesday. “Those demographics are a little less present in the South Texas districts than they are in places like San Antonio or Houston, so I don’t see abortion superseding some of the other concerns on the minds of voters in those areas, nearly as much as we might, let’s say, here in San Antonio.”

Amy O’Donnell, the communications director at the Texas Alliance for Life, said she anticipates Biden’s announcement may actually fire up anti-abortion voters across the state and potentially make them turn out in much higher numbers.

“There are some major issues going on in our country right now that [voters are] considering key issues that are going to determine how they vote, and Republicans are the ones who are voicing opinions on those key issues that matter right now to people in a way that’s causing them to lean Republican and including swing voters,” O’Donnell said. “It’s just showing even further how out of step Biden is, and so many of the Democrats are, when they just keep trying to make abortion the main thing that they’re running on.”

Dr. Natasha Altema-McNeely, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said she could foresee a situation where Texas Republicans talk more about what Biden is proposing than Democrats do in some of these closely-watched Congressional contests. She said that’s because it may give them “more fuel” to stoke their base that largely opposes abortion.

“It would just be expected that with his recent announcement, and with that speech today more specifically, they in response will continue to show and to emphasize to their potential voters as well as their hardcore level of supporter, like, look at what the president is saying about abortion. This goes against your fundamental belief in the importance of life, right?” Altema-McNeely said. “It would be a very useful, and it will be a very useful tool, for them to keep their base of support and attract any potential new voters or undecided voters who would already lean towards the Republicans anyway. This is going to be a useful strategy for them to remind these potential voters and committed voters that look, again, the president is taking the wrong position on this issue that’s important to you.”

Texas Republicans would like to keep Rep. Mayra Flores in her seat after she won a special election this summer to represent Texas District 34. Hoping to unseat her is Vicente Gonzalez, a Democratic Congressman now running in the district after the Texas legislature redrew the boundaries of neighboring District 15. The Cook Political Report, the nonpartisan election prediction newsletter, currently lists this race as a “toss up,” the most competitive designation it has.

Wilson, the San Antonio professor, said the way the 34th District is drawn now might give Gonzalez the upper hand with traditional Democratic voters in this area, but he said Flores received a lot of attention for her special election win that could shape the outcome in November.

“The real question is, A, will those core [Gonzalez] supporters be enthusiastic enough to show up, and then, B, will the other side be sufficiently mobilized by some of these more wedge issues like immigration and will that be a major mobilizer?” Wilson said. “So turnout is going to be very important to this race. You know, my hunch is that overall a higher turnout probably benefits Gonzalez.”

In Texas’ 15th Congressional District, a seat left open after Gonzalez decided to run in another district, Republican Monica De La Cruz is facing Democrat Michelle Vallejo. The race right now is listed as “likely Republican” by The Cook Political Report, suggesting that its analysts consider it not to be very competitive anymore.

Altema-McNeely said Vallejo, a progressive Democrat, may stand to benefit from making abortion access a bigger talking point to drum up more liberal voters in a race that seems to now favor the Republican.

“Her base of support would include many progressives and possibly moderate Democrats who recognize the value of abortion access and, broadly speaking, reproductive health, but it would be risky for that to be her main point,” Altema-McNeely said. “She would have to some degree address economic issues and immigration, broadly speaking — even if it’s not necessarily border security, but just broadly speaking, immigration, right? — because those issues matter to the people here in the Valley regardless of their political backgrounds and regardless of their own positions on each of those issues, they still matter.”

Texas House District 28 is also receiving a spotlight because incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, is fending off Republican challenger Cassy Garcia. The Cook Political Report considers this race as “lean Democrat,” which seems to give a slight advantage to that party. However, according to KXAN’s news partner The Texas Tribune, Garcia — along with Flores and De La Cruz — have raised more money than their Democratic opponents.

The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas surveyed voters about what they see as the most important issue affecting their vote. Abortion ranked third among likely voters in the poll, named by 13% of respondents. Immigration topped the list, at 32%. The state economy ranked second, with 14%.

The top issues highlight partisan divides in Texas. Immigration was the top issue for Republicans, while Abortion was the top issue for Democrats.

“It’s first among Democrats, but not in an overwhelming way,” explained Jim Henson, Director of the Texas Politics Project.

“We have 60% of Republicans citing immigration and border security. The number one result among Democrats, abortion, is only 26%,” Henson said, noting that the difference simplifies the effort to get GOP voters to the polls.

“You have to add up the top three Democratic responses to even get close to about 60%. It makes it easier for Republicans to talk to their voters,” Henson added.

Winter storm failures weigh on race for Railroad Commissioner

Starting Monday when early voting kicks off, Texans will choose who they want as the state’s next railroad commissioner — a race that typically doesn’t garner much attention for an office that has nothing to do with railroads and everything to do with oil and gas regulation.

Despite the misleading name, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) is the primary state agency responsible for regulating Texas’ oil and gas industry. The three-member commission has jurisdiction over pipelines, natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas, the LP-gas industry and coal and uranium surface mining. The RRC also has oversight over Texas energy industries and enforces related state and federal laws.

Texans will choose between four candidates: Republican incumbent Wayne Christian, Democratic nominee Luke Warford and two third-party candidates — Libertarian Jaime Andres Diez and Hunter Wayne Crow of the Green Party.

Attention toward the railroad commissioner race shifted during the Republican primaries when oil and gas attorney Sarah Stogner pushed Christian into a runoff after she went viral for a campaign ad of her riding a pumpjack nearly naked. After losing in the GOP runoff elections, Stogner endorsed Warford for this race. When Stogner announced her endorsement of Warford in late September, she called him not a “typical Democrat” and “pragmatic and pro-business.”

Although there are four candidates, the race has been focused on Christian and Warford. In the last fundraising period, Warford outraised Christian 3:1 and has $318,059 cash on hand compared to Christians’ $181,412 war chest.

Warford, a 33-year-old Austinite, has centered his campaign on the RRC’s role in the power grid’s failure during the 2021 February winter storm and wants to make more changes to ensure the grid’s security in the future. The Democrat has a background working in energy consulting and policy.

Christian, who is seeking a second term, said he believes his experience and perspective will still benefit the state and wants to make sure Texans have access to “cheap, plentiful and reliable energy.” He did not grant our request for an interview but did send responses to our written questions.

Q: Why did you decide to run for election?

Christian: “I am running for re-election because I feel my experience and perspective can still benefit Texans. My overall mission is to ensure that Texans have access to cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy.”

Warford: “My background is in mostly the private sector in energy policy and energy consulting. The issues that are at stake in the Texas Railroad Commission are so important to Texans, are so important to the future of our state. I’m running because Wayne Christian, my opponent, is a career politician who takes 99% of his campaign contributions from the industry he’s supposed to regulate. And that’s having a huge negative impact on people across the state. And I want to change that.”

Q: What would be your top priorities in another term as railroad commissioner?

Christian: “My top priorities as commissioner are to fight back against the Biden administration’s radical anti-oil and gas agenda to increase the domestic production of oil and natural gas to decrease the cost of gas and groceries and increase energy security.”

Warford: “Three main things I’m focused on are one securing our grid so that Texans don’t have to live in fear that the power is gonna go out the next time it gets cold. Two is decreasing our utility prices because Texas is the energy capital of the world. Three is protecting our air and our water. The oil and gas industry and the Railroad Commission have a huge impact on Texans clean air and clean water and the environment.”

Q: How would you address further securing the power grid as we head into winter?

Christian: “The Railroad Commission does not regulate electricity, but the best way to ensure reliable energy is to build out more natural gas generation facilities. Companies would be more incentivized to do so if we stopped picking winners and losers and subsidizing unreliable forms of energy.”

Warford: “During the winter storm, as electricity supply dropped, we then cut off electricity supply to some of our most critical natural gas producers. And the reason that that happened is because the Railroad Commission hadn’t mapped out who the critical producers… now the Railroad Commission was directed to create a supply chain map to try to address that problem. But what we’ve got is a map with no transparency with the commission. We don’t know who asked to comply, we have no assurances that they actually have complied. And we basically have the commission saying, ‘hey, just trust us.'”

Q: Do you think more needs to be done to regulate natural gas facilities when it comes to weatherization?

Christian: “We have made sure as Senate Bill three allowed, that we work together with PUC, which regulates electricity and ERCOT, we’ve worked with them to make sure that we are communicating at all times, that there are emergency factors in place, that there are no walls between agencies to protect the public and provide the maximum support during any type of emergency action such as cold or hot.”

Warford: “We need to focus on the producers that are producing the most and are most important for our system. And for them, it’s totally reasonable to require them to weatherize and that’s where I would focus as a commissioner.”

Q: Your opponent Luke Warford has accused you of being “corrupt” due to campaign contributions you have received from the oil and gas industry. What is your response to his allegations against you?

Christian: “I have never allowed a political contribution to influence my decisions in elected office. I have followed and continue to abide by all Texas Ethics Commission rules regarding when I can accept contributions and have in full transparency reported every contribution I have received. I have no personal financial ties to the oil and gas industry.”

Q for Christian: Why should Texans elect you again?

Christian: “I believe Texans should elect me again because I’m willing to fight. I have concern for my grandkids, I believe the good Lord has given us oil gas, and coal as the greatest resource and made Texas the number one supplier of that in history. And we’ve been given the moral, I think duty to oversee the proper use of that oil, gas, and coal” 

Q for Warford: What is your response to criticism from your opponent, who is describing you as a left-wing extremist?

Warford: “I actually think lowering emissions is in the interest and makes sense for Texas, not just from an environmental perspective, but from an industry perspective as well, right, especially with everything happening in Europe, right now, European natural gas buyers are going to be looking to buy hydrocarbons from elsewhere around the world. And those buyers are willing to pay more for lower emissions, oil and gas. And right now, Texas oil and gas has a reputation as not being particularly clean, because the Texas Railroad Commission doesn’t enforce the rules, doesn’t hold that actors accountable.”

Operation Lone Star soldiers owe federal taxes after internal error

Thousands of Texas National Guard troops may have to pay for a mistake they didn’t make, which could cost them hundreds or thousands of dollars in federal taxes.

The Texas Military Department (TMD) said a payroll error will force Operation Lone Star guardsmen on the border to pay back federal taxes that never came out of their paychecks.

We spoke to one soldier who wants accountability. He didn’t want to be identified for his safety, but we did verify who he is through his pay stubs from Operation Lone Star.

The soldier we spoke with said he feels he went into the mission blind.

“They [said], ‘Hey… some of us might go out to the border for up to four months,'” the soldier said.

The four months turned into nearly a year for this soldier.

“[Operation Lone Star] was rough, you know, overnight shifts,” the soldier said. “Just seeing the inhumanity of it all, people walking across barefoot … nearly naked with their kids, and they’re all starving and just begging for assistance.”

While on the border from October 2021 to August 2022, the guardsman told us he didn’t get a paystub for several months.

“Once we got pay stubs, they simply had our net amount listed on there and nothing else,” he said.

TMD admits the payroll error. It said the checks withheld too little in federal taxes. TMD said the mistake will impact 96% of its service members.

“There’s nothing else that’s been released to the soldiers as far as I know,” the soldier said. “It’s just a lot of all of us … hitting each other’s phone line and saying, ‘Hey, it looks like we’re going to have some issues.’ Don’t know what they are yet.”

TMD told the Texas Tribune soldiers will start getting paid once a month instead of twice to solve the problem, starting in January. It’s not clear how long that will last.

“I just bought a house … I’m expecting my first child,” the soldier said. “Now I have to budget for an unknown amount.”

“They need to explain from beginning to end what happened. At the end, they need to tell us next steps that they’re taking … to simply tell us what we’re going to owe,” the soldier said.

We reached out for an update from TMD on Wednesday but haven’t heard back yet. This story will be updated with any additional responses.

Gas price volatility fueled by production cut and reserve release

If you’ve filled up your gas tank at the pump lately, you’ve likely noticed gas prices are ticking up, albeit slowly.

AAA said the average price for a gallon of gas in the Austin area is about $3.23 a gallon, up roughly five cents from a month ago.

The steady uptick comes in the days after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as OPEC, announced its plans to cut the amount of oil it produces and distributes to the global market.

President Joe Biden and his administration have pushed back against the plan, saying the U.S. would be reevaluating its relationship with Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s biggest oil producer.

University of Texas Professor and Distinguished Oil and Gas Scholar Owen Anderson talked with KXAN’s Tom Miller about what the cut could mean for Texas.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tom Miller: Can you explain what OPEC is?

Professor Owen Anderson: OPEC is 13 oil-producing countries of which Saudi Arabia is the largest and most influential producer. These countries meet periodically to determine how much oil members will actually produce over a given period of time, usually a quarter.

Miller: There was a recent decision about cutting oil production. What are they looking at?

Anderson: OPEC determines the production volume by looking at economic forecasts, and its most recent forecast was slowing growth due to efforts to fight inflation, which OPEC is concerned will trigger a recession. So they agreed to cut production by two million barrels of oil per day. That amount is then allocated among member countries.

Miller: Why was this controversial here?

Anderson: If OPEC members honor their quotas, this would probably mean higher oil prices at the pump and more inflation. Of course, that’s good for oil-producing state economies such as West Texas, but it puts added strain on consumers due to inflation.

Miller: If we do see OPEC sticking to that two million barrels of oil cut — how high could we see oil prices go here as a result of this?

Anderson: I would imagine that the range of prices would be maybe $80 to $110 a barrel. I think it’s probably likely to be less than $100 (per barrel) mostly.

Concerns over fuel prices led President Biden to announce new steps to boost oil supplies and lower gas prices.

On Tuesday, he ordered the release of 15 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Biden said he made the move “to ensure that our energy independence and security is available and to lower gas prices here at home.”

The President also accused oil companies of keeping prices high to fuel historic profits.

“You should not be using your profits to buy back stock or for dividends. You should be using these record-breaking profits to increase production. Invest in America,” Biden said at a news conference.

The announcement comes just weeks before the midterm election. Biden said the decision was not politically motivated, claiming that he needed to do it now to give the Energy Department enough time to release the oil beginning in December.