It’s become an inside joke among Capitol insiders that the best way to figure out what Governor Greg Abbott and the Republican Legislature are gonna do next is to read the Miami Herald—or better yet, follow Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Twitter.
While that’s a bit overstated, it’s truer than Abbott and his allies would care to admit. Long the biggest, baddest political perch in red state America, the Texas governorship is no longer the singular juggernaut it once was in national politics.
DeSantis, boy wonder of the Sunshine State, availed himself of a GOP power vacuum that opened after Trump’s 2020 presidential loss, becoming the front-runner among 2024 Republican presidential contenders whose names don’t end in rump. That status was further solidified by his nearly 20-point blowout reelection in 2022, making Abbott’s own 11-point drubbing of Beto O’Rourke look downright quaint.
With a new GOP supermajority in both chambers of the Florida statehouse, DeSantis has advanced an agenda that is obsessively focused on so-called anti-wokeism, punishing public schools and teachers, LGBTQ+ folks, the Disney corporation, and the free press via state-sanctioned culture policing.
For the past few years, Abbott has engaged DeSantis in a not-so-subtle shadow boxing match over who could use their emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic in the most perverse fashion or who could sign the most oppressive legislation into law. But the political feedback loop between Tallahassee and Austin, telegraphed by way of Fox News and Newsmax, has become all the more transparent during this state legislative season.
One of Abbott’s first moves this year, uncharacteristically for a governor who usually stays behind the scenes in a session’s early days, was to throw his support behind a Senate bill that would ban certain foreign entities and citizens from countries like China and Iran from buying land on Texas soil. The pronouncement came five days after DeSantis held a press conference pledging to do the same in Florida. In February, a week after DeSantis pledged to ban “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) in state colleges, Abbott’s chief of staff Gardner Pate sent a memo to Texas agencies and universities warning that it was illegal to consider DEI principles in hiring decisions.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a politician in the same anti-woke warrior mold as DeSantis, has eagerly imported many of the Florida man’s hateful innovations into the Texas Senate. The little gov is, for instance, leading the charge on a bill that would prohibit any discussion of sexuality or gender in Texas’ K-12 classrooms—a more far-reaching version of DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” law that is limited to elementary schoolchildren. The Texas Senate has also passed a sweeping bill to ban all gender-affirming healthcare for transgender kids in Texas, which would go beyond Florida’s similar edict by outlawing care even for current patients.
While DeSantis’ allies have been speedrunning his political vendettas through the legislature, the Yale and Harvard alum embarked on a national tour ostensibly to promote his literary opus entitled The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival. Obviously, the book tour doubles as a dry run for his all-but-announced presidential bid. The tour brought him onto Texas turf this spring as an esteemed guest at two local GOP dinner events in Houston and Dallas, where he declared Florida to be an equal partner with the Lone Star State in the coming wars on wokeness.
“They know you don’t mess with Texas—and you don’t tread on Florida,” DeSantis declared at one event. “I really believe if it hadn’t been for Texas and Florida playing the role we have in this country in recent history, our entire country would be one big woke, neo-Marxist dumpster fire.” DeSantis never mentioned Abbott by name, referring to him only as “your governor.”
Later this month, DeSantis will head to Austin as the marquee guest for an event hosted by the Cicero Institute, the personal think tank and lobbying operation of venture capitalist and Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale. Since fleeing Silicon Valley for Texas as a self-declared political refugee, Lonsdale has quietly become a player in GOP politics here, developing close connections with Abbott-world.
Daniel Hodge, Abbott’s former longtime aide, is an advisor to Lonsdale’s venture capital firm 8VC and arranged a lunch between the investor and the governor in 2020. Abbott’s daughter also works for 8VC as an events coordinator. Lonsdale is also a DeSantis donor and said he could support him for president, though he hasn’t officially endorsed.
Meanwhile, when the topic of DeSantis-Abbott tensions is raised, Abbott is quick to note that Texas has outpaced Florida with passage of a total abortion ban and permitless carry law, while insisting that he and Ron are buds. “DeSantis and I do a lot of things together,” he said in 2021. “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.”
In Tallahassee, DeSantis allies seem to think the whole Abbott-DeSantis comparison is a cute parlor game for Austin insiders. “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,” Brian Ballard, a top Florida lobbyist and powerbroker, said earlier this year. “I never have anyone say to me, ‘Did [DeSantis] get that from Gov. Abbott? Did you see what Gov. Abbott did in Texas?’”
While DeSantis has certainly gotten the better of Abbott in raising his national profile and becoming the post-Trump voice of grievance ideology, the actual tit-for-tat in their political arms race may not be all that relevant in a presidential primary several months out.
DeSantis’ stature has already made him a target for Trump—who has launched his comeback campaign and dubbed the former “Ron DeSanctimonious.” And in presidential politics, the first thoroughbred out of the gate is often the first to stumble and fall. Just ask the last Florida governor (“please clap”) or the last Texas governor (“oops”) to enter a presidential race with supposed front-runner pedigree. Abbott and his political aides have done the typical dance around presidential speculation, saying he’s solely focused on the tasks at hand in the legislative session. By the time summer comes, DeSantis may well have melted down—and an indicted Trump may have absconded to Riyadh.
Abbott and his political handlers are keeping their powder dry regarding his own rumored presidential ambitions, while leaving open the chance that maybe he’ll start sniffin’ around after sine die. The question then: Will Abbott, who’s become something of a petty tyrant here in Texas, where he’s spoiled by the safety of one-party rule, prove to be anything other than yet another governor out of his league?