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As 2024 nears, Florida's Ron DeSantis looms large over Greg Abbott in Texas

By Patrick Svitek & James Barragán, The Texas Tribune
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been sending signals that he intends to run for president. He campaigned for Republicans nationwide during the midterms, he has written a book that came out Tuesday and he is increasingly making political appearances outside Florida, including the Texas trip this weekend. File Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI
1 of 2 | Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been sending signals that he intends to run for president. He campaigned for Republicans nationwide during the midterms, he has written a book that came out Tuesday and he is increasingly making political appearances outside Florida, including the Texas trip this weekend. File Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 28 (UPI) --

In July 2021, a Dallas radio host asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott if he was fed up with constantly being measured against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

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"I know you guys are compadres in many ways," the host, Mark Davis, said to Abbott, but "have you had it up to your eyeballs with being compared?"

Abbott dismissed the notion there was any tension between him and the then-rising star in the GOP.

"DeSantis and I do a lot of things together," he said, while adding that Texas had beat Florida to the punch in passing permit-less carry for handguns and a ban on abortions after roughly six weeks gestation. "We talk in ways and times that people have no idea about ... and so I just kind of roll my eyes and scoff a little bit when people say these things."

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Over a year and a half later, the comparisons have only intensified as speculation mounts about whether the two governors of the most populous Republican-controlled states will jump into the 2024 presidential race. But those comparisons don't exactly cast them in an equal light.

Even in his own state, Abbott is overshadowed by DeSantis as more Texas Republicans are energized by the possibility of a presidential run by the Florida governor. DeSantis has also become the de facto conservative measuring stick that Abbott's GOP critics use to highlight the Texas governor's perceived shortcomings. That's despite a number of similarities in the priorities and policies pushed by the two governors in recent years.

DeSantis and Abbott often appear to be locked in an unspoken ideological arms race, seemingly competing for the title of the nation's most conservative governor, as they take turns leading and then following one another, enacting policies and backing bills that push both states further to the right.

Among the areas where the two have echoed each other: reopening businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, restricting abortion, expanding gun access, transporting migrants to blue cities, cracking down on diversity policies in K-12 and higher education and supporting bans on the Chinese government and its citizens from purchasing state land.

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On paper, Abbott and DeSantis have a lot in common. Both scored high-profile re-election wins in November while Republicans underperformed elsewhere. And both are fundraising juggernauts who have raked in a number of seven-figure donations for their respective gubernatorial races.

And yet, despite being a mainstay on Fox News, Abbott doesn't match the popularity or the national profile that DeSantis has garnered within his party.

"You look at [Abbott] and say, 'Sure, he brings the conservative credentials, but he's not seen like the fighter that Donald Trump is or DeSantis is becoming,'" said Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward's University in Austin.

Luke Macias, a conservative political consultant in Texas who is often critical of Abbott, said it's about more than just policy. It's about leadership.

"Abbott's posture in the culture war is much more akin to the old guard establishment wing of the GOP," Macias said. "DeSantis acknowledges the culture war and publicly talks about the need to take on the left."

Abbott's more passive style was seen in the abortion and gun bills of 2021 that he now touts as conservative wins, Macias noted. While activists had been agitating for a "heartbeat bill" to restrict abortion and "constitutional carry" to loosen gun laws for years, Abbott did not openly back the legislation until it was clear they were advancing at the Capitol that session. He later signed both bills into law.

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If there is a rivalry, though, it's one-sided, with Florida Republicans professing little interest in Abbott's maneuvering. While polls show Texas Republicans prefer DeSantis overwhelmingly as their top alternative to former President Donald Trump for 2024, Abbott is so far hardly a blip in polling anywhere. For now, DeSantis is considered far more likely -- and formidable -- a presidential contender.

A Fox News poll released Sunday found Trump getting 43% in the 2024 primary, while DeSantis behind him with 28% and Abbott much farther back, with 2%.

Evan Power, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Florida does not "see Texas as a rival in ... our freedom or where we are legislatively anymore."

"Not to be disrespectful to Gov. Abbott, but I don't think there are many people in the DeSantis orbit who consider that to be a rivalry," said Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida lobbyist who co-chaired DeSantis' inauguration. Around the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Ballard added, "I never have anyone say to me, 'Did [DeSantis] get that from Gov. Abbott? Did you see what Gov. Abbott did in Texas?'"

In a recent interview with The Texas Tribune, Abbott again shrugged off the notion he is competing with DeSantis.

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"The reality is we really just focus on Texas and working for our constituents here in our state," Abbott said.

DeSantis will make his most anticipated trip to Texas yet this weekend, when he is set to visit Houston and Dallas to headline annual fundraising dinners for the county GOPs in each city. It is part of an increase in his out-of-state travel -- along with a book release Tuesday -- that is only further stoking speculation he is gearing up to run for president.

Harris County GOP Chairwoman Cindy Siegel announced DeSantis' appearance in a statement that was careful to treat the two states as peers rather than rivals.

"Alongside Texas," she said, "Florida is one of the nation's most prosperous and free states thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis' leadership."

Twin issues

The comparisons between Abbott and DeSantis have arisen on a vast range of policy issues, but they started in earnest amid the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Abbott's pandemic management became a top issue in his Republican primary for re-election in the spring of 2021, with challengers like Don Huffines assailing Abbott over business shutdowns on his watch. Huffines regularly pitted Abbott against DeSantis, saying at one point that Abbott "was following that lyin', fraudulent [Dr. Anthony] Fauci for over nine months" while DeSantis "was basically running the country."

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In reality, Texas lifted its statewide stay-at-home order at the end of April 2020, and Florida followed a few days later. DeSantis himself said during a January 2021 speech in Austin that Texas "has by and large done a good job as well" on COVID-19 mandates.

But for Abbott's intraparty critics, the die was cast, and DeSantis became the new conservative standard bearer.

Along the way, Abbott and DeSantis presented a cordial relationship when they crossed paths, including at a joint news conference along the Texas-Mexico border in July 2021. DeSantis addressed Abbott casually -- "Thank you, Greg" -- and praised his efforts to secure the border under then-new President Joe Biden.

"We appreciate you stepping up where the federal government won't," DeSantis told Abbott.

For months, Abbott was essentially unrivaled in national headlines among governors for his efforts to spotlight border security and crack down on illegal immigration. Since April, Abbott had been busing migrants to Democrat-led cities across the country, earning regular appearances on Fox News and plaudits from conservatives across the nation.

But then one day in September, DeSantis flew two planes full of migrants from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard, Mass. DeSantis' stunt instantly overshadowed Abbott's efforts, creating a national firestorm driven by DeSantis' larger political profile and questions about the legality -- and ethics -- of the flights.

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"Kudos to [DeSantis]," tweeted U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who previously proposed legislation to create a new port of entry on Martha's Vineyard.

Reporters inquired about whether Abbott coordinated with DeSantis on the flights -- after all, the flights originated in San Antonio. His office said they welcomed DeSantis' interest in the border situation, but below the surface, it was easy to see tension. An Abbott spokesperson said the governor's office had talked to DeSantis' about "supporting our busing strategy" but added that Texas was "not involved" in the Martha's Vineyard flights. And in a TV interview days later, Abbott plainly sought to distinguish Texas' migrant busing from the DeSantis-ordered flights, saying Texas gets written permission from migrants to transport them, among other things.

"It's just done completely differently," Abbott said.

Since then, Texas' busing efforts have continued sending more than 9,100 migrants to Democrat-led cities, while Florida's migrant flights, which are being investigated for criminal activity, have stopped.

The comparisons have only picked up since Texas' legislative session started in early January.

On Jan. 15, Abbott declared on Twitter that he would sign a Senate bill to ban certain foreign entities and citizens from buying land in Texas, a proposal in which he had not previously shown much interest. Abbott cast it as an extension of a far narrower bill he signed in 2021, though it was hard to ignore the more immediate timeline: Five days earlier, DeSantis said at a news conference in Florida he wanted to ban China from buying property there.

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"Basically, anything that DeSantis does, Abbott's got to follow," said state Rep. Gene Wu, a Chinese American Democrat from Houston who has spearheaded the opposition to the Texas Senate bill.

Earlier this month, Abbott courted controversy again when his chief of staff sent a letter to state agencies and public colleges warning that it is illegal to make hiring decisions based on ​​diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The letter came about a week after DeSantis announced a plan to block DEI programs at Florida state colleges.

Abbott's not the only Texas official who is watching Florida. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is prioritizing legislation to restrict classroom discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation after seeing DeSantis champion it in Florida. And state House Speaker Dade Phelan is drawing inspiration from DeSantis as he aims to hold big technology companies accountable this session.

To Republicans like state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, Texas and Florida are working more as a partnership than a rivalry, with each state swapping big ideas and constituents winning out.

"They've done some things we haven't; we've done some things they haven't," said Creighton, the Senate's Education Committee chairman who traveled to Tallahassee in December to meet with DeSantis and his education advisers.

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Creighton, in an interview, said he was surprised by how much time DeSantis gave him to discuss education policy.

"I didn't really approach it from a competitive standpoint. I approached it as a partnership," Creighton said, characterizing their conversation as a "comparison of some of the policies that Florida and Texas have passed but don't necessarily match up exactly."

Creighton said DeSantis was "very complimentary of Texas and certainly very interested in what we're doing here." He mentioned "a few conversations" he has had with Abbott "in a very respectful way," Creighton added.

Abbott overlooked

Abbott's allies say the DeSantis comparisons often overlook Abbott's record.

"I don't think Greg Abbott gets the credit he deserves for being a leader on conservative issues," said John Wittman, a former top aide to Abbott, pointing to Abbott's record on abortion, guns and the border. Plus, Wittman added, "economically I don't think anyone can compete with him."

Abbott himself has become more willing to assert where Texas has led the way. He said in the recent interview with the Tribune that Texas has been a "national leader" in restricting abortion and expanding gun rights, implicitly contrasting with the Sunshine State. He has also made more direct comparisons on his Twitter feed, including in December when a user asked him about the news Florida was pulling $2 billion in assets from BlackRock over the investment firm's environmental, social and governance policies.

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"Texas was the first state to ban BlackRock from doing business with our state," Abbott replied, citing a 2021 law he signed.

In the Legislature, Republicans also feel as though their conservative accomplishments have been underappreciated amid the national spotlight on DeSantis.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, needled DeSantis last year over his championing of new election restrictions in Florida, tweeting he was "glad Gov [DeSantis] liked our ideas and signed a bill Gov. [Abbott] signed over a year ago."

State Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasant, piled on in a tweet responding to Hughes.

"Agreed. Florida needs to catch up to Texas and pass these policies," Hefner said, ticking off "constitutional carry," "heartbeat bill" and "abortion ban."

DeSantis is indeed looking to make new progress on those issues when the Florida Legislature meets next month. He is seeking a permit-less carry law and potentially a bill to ban abortion as early as six weeks, similar to Texas' "heartbeat bill."

Last week, DeSantis announced another priority with an unavoidable nexus to the Lone Star State: a far-reaching crackdown on illegal immigration. Among the proposals he wants is the repeal of a law allowing undocumented migrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities.

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Texas governors -- including Abbott and his predecessor, Rick Perry -- have long faced pressure from their right to repeal a similar law in Texas but have not given in.

The relationship between the two governors is noticeably more muted than that of their predecessors. Perry and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott enjoyed a close friendship, playfully competing to bring jobs to their states. Scott went to law school in Texas and started his career here.

Scott specifically followed in Perry's footsteps by traveling to blue states to try to poach jobs from them.

At the time, Perry was perceived as the more prominent GOP star of the two governors.

"Rick Scott wants to be the new Rick Perry," Politico wrote in 2015.

2024?

Certainly, part of the reason why DeSantis has a higher national profile is because he's sending stronger signals that he intends to run for president.

DeSantis campaigned for Republicans nationwide during the midterms, he has written a book that came out Tuesday and he is increasingly making political appearances outside Florida, including the Texas trip this weekend.

Abbott has done none of that, and his team says he is making a point to avoid the national GOP travel circuit for now.

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Notably, however, Abbott has remained silent on Trump's 2024 campaign. The two have been on generally good terms over the years, and Trump endorsed Abbott early in his re-election bid as he was drawing primary challengers.

Asked about 2024 these days, Abbott does not rule out a campaign but says he is currently focused on Texas. His aides say he will wait until after the current legislative session -- which ends in late May -- to consider a White House bid. That period -- late spring -- is roughly when DeSantis is expected to launch a campaign.

If Abbott does not run, he will no doubt face pressure to take sides ahead of the early Texas primary, potentially picking between Trump and DeSantis.

Meanwhile, other Texas Republican officials are already sizing up a 2024 pool without so much as an acknowledgement of Abbott's potential interest.

Patrick is backing Trump again after twice chairing his campaigns in Texas.

"I just don't know Ron DeSantis," Patrick said at a conference in Austin last month, calling Trump "the person to beat" at the moment. "I think Ron DeSantis has done a terrific job in Florida. I have nothing negative to say about him -- I think he's done a really good job -- but I'm a Trump guy."

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In a recent radio interview, another Trump loyalist in Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton, lauded DeSantis as he explained why he was nonetheless sticking with Trump for 2024, citing his White House record.

"I love Ron DeSantis," Paxton said. "I think he's done a great job as governor of Florida."

Disclosure: Politico has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/28/greg-abbott-ron-desantis-texas-2024/.

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

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