In July 2021, a Dallas radio host asked Gov. Greg Abbott if he was fed up with constantly being measured against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“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 permitless 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.”
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.
On paper, Abbott and DeSantis have a lot in common. Both scored high-profile reelection 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.
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 chair 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.
“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 Chair 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 Governor Ron DeSantis’ leadership.”
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 reelection 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.”
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. 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.
“Kudos to [DeSantis],” tweeted U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, 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.
“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 chair who traveled to Tallahassee in December to meet with DeSantis and his education advisers.
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.”