Politics

Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis Are Competing to Be Trump. Who’s Winning? – Texas Monthly

The list of potential candidates in the GOP’s 2024 presidential primary field is like Zack Snyder’s Justice League: it’s grim in tone, a bit overdramatic, and extremely long. But as the party has coalesced around Trump over the past several years, it’s also become ideologically homogeneous. The viable choices will include Trump-supporting governors, Trump-supporting senators, a few Trump-supporting media personalities, the occasional Trump-supporting representative, and a handful of former Trump administration cabinet officials. Truly, a smorgasbord of options. 

None of the candidates have formally announced campaigns yet, but like chess grandmasters, many of them have been busily sliding their pieces into play: raising money, opposing government-imposed COVID-19 public-safety measures, catering to the base, and owning the libs. And for two of these potential candidates, who govern the third- and second-most populous states in the union, respectively, the parallels are particularly noteworthy. Florida’s Ron DeSantis is so widely speculated upon as a potential 2024 candidate that Donald Trump himself felt obligated earlier this month to put him in his place. (DeSantis called such speculation “nonsense” in early September.) Texas governor Greg Abbott is believed by many to have ambitions beyond his current office. When asked in November if he intends to run for president in 2024, Abbott gave a distinctly non-Sherman-esque statement, saying only, “We’ll see what happens.” But in recent years, he’s shifted from a W.-esque “compassionate conservative” to a decidedly more Trumpy hard-line conservative; and his political strategist Dave Carney has some experience turning Texas governors into presidential contenders, having done the same thing (briefly!) for Rick Perry in 2012. 

Are Abbott and DeSantis in a position to be rivals for the GOP nomination as we inch ever closer to the 2024 primary season, which will begin in earnest about a year from now? Both have been governing their states in ways that seem designed to play well in a post-Trump primary. But the question of who has done more to tack rightward with an eye on Iowa is one complicated enough to need a scorecard. Which we’ll update, going forward, as each player puts more numbers on the board. 

COVID Culture War 

In 2020, as the responsibility for addressing COVID was left to the states, Florida and Texas both leaned heavily on “personal responsibility” as a guiding ethos. In the pandemic’s earliest days, both Abbott and DeSantis issued stay-at-home directives for residents—Abbott on March 31, and DeSantis the following day—but neither left those measures in place for long. By late April, Abbott had banned local mask mandates (albeit with a loophole in the rules, which Abbott indicated was created intentionally), while DeSantis didn’t initially ban local mandates—but didn’t institute any on a statewide level, either. 

The differences between Texas and Florida on COVID are largely a matter of degree, rather than philosophy: both states attempted early reopenings of their economies, and both states saw surges in cases not long after. Florida reopened more quickly and more fully—restaurants and bars were operating again within weeks, sometimes at high capacity—while Texas rolled its reopening policies out over the summer. The result? Florida is fourth in the nation in capita COVID cases per 100,000 people—Texas is a mere twenty-fourth. But DeSantis has become a hero in certain conservative circles for his laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, while Abbott’s more wishy-washy handling has infuriated both Democrats and Republicans alike, albeit for very different reasons. 

Why the difference? It might have something to do with the tone: Abbott’s praised vaccines and urged Texans to get them, even as he’s issued orders preventing businesses from excluding unvaccinated customers, while DeSantis appointed an anti-mask, vaccine-skeptical surgeon general last month. 

GOP Primary Point: DeSantis

Immigration Policy

Few issues fire up GOP voters as much as immigration. There’s only so much, substantively, that a governor can do about immigration as a policy issue, however. DeSantis got to sign a law banning “sanctuary cities” (which Abbott did two years earlier, in 2017), then pretty much ran out of options. Abbott would seem to have an advantage, though, by virtue of being the governor of a border state: he has been able to call in the National Guard and deploy the Texas Department of Public Safety to the border as part of his “Operation Lone Star.”   

That advantage is something of a double-edged sword for Abbott, however. Despite his taking more action around immigration than DeSantis, the feeling that he ought to be able to do even more has led to an opening for his opponents. Don Huffines, one of the primary challengers for Abbott’s current job, has used “Finish the Wall” as a campaign slogan, blaming Abbott for a failure to complete the construction of Trump’s foremost policy promise (though only about half of the U.S.-Mexico border runs through Texas). That’s easier said than done, however, as the Trump administration budgeted $8.1 billion for the entire wall and didn’t come close, and the state’s budget for the project is $1 billion, just 12.3 percent of that figure. (With the aid of $54 million in private donations solicited by Abbott, it shoots up to 13 percent.) Abbott’s main response to Huffines and other critics seems to be tweeting photos of exhausted-looking migrants being arrested at the border

DeSantis is in a sweet spot regarding this particular piece of policy. Nobody can actually expect him to do much of anything, but he can still talk tough and pick fights with the Biden administration. In July, DeSantis flew to Texas, where he showed up at an event in Del Rio and appeared alongside Abbott to blame Biden for an increase in migrants at the border. At a press conference in Florida a month later, he responded to Biden’s admonishments about COVID policy by saying, “I don’t want to hear a blip from you” until the president secures the border—the sort of zinger that, in a GOP primary, might well be worth a million Operation Lone Stars. 

GOP Primary Point: DeSantis

Fundraising

Presidential primary elections are expensive business. Ted Cruz’s runner-up bid for the 2016 GOP nomination cost $94 million. Candidates who fail to raise enough money run shoestring operations without the ground staff most winning campaigns utilize, and fundraising totals often stand in for polling as a measure of popular support, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy around a candidate’s potential for future success. 

Abbott has long been a fundraising juggernaut. In July, he had $55 million cash on hand for an election that was still sixteen months away. However, that number—while the largest cash-on-hand figure for a statewide candidate in Texas history—looks a mite less impressive when put next to DeSantis’s. DeSantis’s cash-on-hand figure is nearly identical to Abbott’s—$53 million, according to the Tallahassee Democrat—but that number only tells part of the story. When it comes to bringing money in in 2021, Abbott’s $20 million haul over the first half of the year is dwarfed by DeSantis’s $36 million. What’s more, DeSantis has spent the summer proving himself to be a capable fundraiser outside of his own state, with a list of donors that, from June 1 to the end of September, runs 752 pages long with contributions from every state. (Including 1,185 Texans!) 

DeSantis is raising money at events in Texas, such as the $2,500-per-person dinner hosted by Dallas billionaire Kenny Troutt in September. Abbott, meanwhile, is not fundraising in Florida. DeSantis is no stranger to out-fundraising Abbott, either: in 2018 (albeit when DeSantis faced a competitive challenger and Abbott, uh, didn’t so much), the Florida guv raised $60.2 million, compared to $44.8 for Abbott. They’re both raising heaps of cash, but DeSantis’s heap is growing faster. 

GOP Primary Point: DeSantis 

Polling

Abbott and DeSantis are among the most polarizing governors in the country—and their handling of COVID and other policy decisions have caused both of their poll numbers among their own constituents to dip. In a poll published in September, both governors had 48 percent approval ratings in their respective states—down from 51 percent for Abbott and 54 percent for DeSantis just two months before. Both of them are still odds-on favorites for reelection in 2022 (on the political betting market PredictIt, you have to put 79 cents down on DeSantis to win back a dollar, while the site isn’t even taking money on Abbott’s chances of losing in a general election at the moment). But a presidential primary isn’t just about your own state’s voters—it’s about convincing a small handful of Iowans that you should be carrying the Republican banner.

On that front, DeSantis far outweighs Abbott. A July poll of potential GOP candidates—which excluded Trump—saw DeSantis get 39 percent of a thirteen-candidate field. The next-closest candidate, Mike Pence, had 15 percent. Ted Cruz polled at 7 percent. Abbott wasn’t even included. The bookies similarly don’t think Abbott is currently a factor in GOP presidential politics: on the overseas sportsbook site Bovada, Abbott is a 50-to-1 long shot, meaning that every dollar you bet on the Texas governor stands to win you fifty bucks, while the same bet on DeSantis would net you a mere $2.50. (A similar bet on Trump is worth $1.75 at the moment.) To contextualize where the gambling world sees Abbott’s chances, Kanye West currently has 30-to-1 odds to win the GOP nomination, and Beto O’Rourke has a 66-to-1 shot at somehow becoming the Democratic presidential nominee. 

GOP Primary Point: DeSantis

Owning the Libs

In the Trump era, pissing off the other side matters more than achieving policy objectives. Accordingly, both Abbott and DeSantis have dug their heels in deep on the culture war issues of the day: “stopping the steal,” abortion, critical race theory, and making life harder for transgender kids.

On those fronts, DeSantis has largely led, while Abbott has followed. On the very night DeSantis was elected in 2018, Florida voters also passed a referendum to restore voting rights for Floridians who had been convicted of felonies—a ballot measure that won a million more votes than DeSantis himself did. A few months later, however, DeSantis signed a law limiting that right, requiring that those voters first pay off any outstanding court fees and fines before they could actually cast ballots. He followed that up with one of the more restrictive voting laws in the country, which he signed this May. Abbott, meanwhile, didn’t get to pass his restrictive voting law until September. 

When it comes to schools teaching about race and racism, DeSantis beat Abbott to signing a critical race theory ban by five days. Florida banned transgender female athletes from competing in youth sporting events that correspond with their gender identity, while Texas has yet to succeed in removing that opportunity from the lives of such students (though Abbott added the issue to the agenda of the latest special session of the Texas Legislature). Only on abortion—where Abbott signed the, er, extremely creative Senate Bill 8 into law, which allows anybody anywhere in the U.S. to sue anyone anywhere else in the U.S. who helps anyone get an abortion in Texas after fetal cardiac activity can be detected—has Abbott been ahead of DeSantis, whose party only introduced a similar bill in Florida last month. And critically, as a matter of tone, DeSantis’s confrontational style—feuding with the Biden administration, with the producers of 60 Minutes, and with school superintendents in his own state—stands in contrast to Abbott’s own tendencies (he prefers to pose for photos with sympathetic celebrities such as Joe Rogan and Eric Clapton). 

GOP Primary Point: DeSantis

Support From the Base

Perhaps the starkest difference between Abbott and DeSantis is how they’re perceived by their own party. DeSantis is a rising star, climbing steadily in the esteem of the GOP. He was a mere congressional rep until 2018, then won his first term in a nail-biter, claiming victory by fewer than 34,000 votes. Republicans love him, in part, because they’re aware that Florida was very close to being governed by Democrat Andrew Gillum instead. 

Abbott, meanwhile, is something of a victim of the GOP’s continued electoral domination of Texas. In his two terms, he’s won each of his campaigns by double-digit margins against Democratic challengers—yet while he’s long been broadly acceptable to a wide array of Texas Republicans, a vocal segment of the base thinks Texas can get more than just someone who is “broadly acceptable.” He’s been mocked by operatives of his own party for his COVID policies (and, inappropriately, for his use of a wheelchair), and faces three opponents in his primary for 2022, all of whom argue that Texas needs a governor who’s even further to the right than Abbott. 

Abbott will likely survive these challenges, but the difference between how he and DeSantis are viewed by their own party is clear: DeSantis is ascendant, someone Republicans in and outside of Florida are proud to have as their guy, while Abbott has been around for a while and does not inspire the same fealty. (A July poll saw Abbott’s disapproval among Texas Republicans at 15 percent, while just 9 percent of Florida’s GOP voters disapproved of DeSantis.) In a presidential primary, DeSantis would enter with the full support of Florida’s GOP voters. Abbott, on the other hand, could well show up in Iowa bruised by a four-way Republican primary for the office he currently holds. 

GOP Primary Point: DeSantis 

Final Tally (So Far) 

The scorecard looks grim for the man from Texas. The challenge Abbott faces is that pretty much every argument he could make for himself to GOP voters, DeSantis can make, but with more money, better name recognition, and less baggage. If Abbott wants to be the Trumpiest GOP governor in the union, and not be headed for a ninth-place finish in Iowa, he’s clearly got his work cut out for him.

Total GOP Primary Points: DeSantis 6, Abbott 0



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