WASHINGTON, D.C. (The Hill) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) will get his moment in the spotlight Friday when he faces off against Beto O’Rourke for the first and only televised debate of the gubernatorial race.
Abbott enters the debate comfortably, leading O’Rourke by roughly 7-8 points in most polls. But the forum also comes amid speculation that Abbott could mount a presidential bid in 2024, as well as reports of a growing rivalry between him and another rising GOP star, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is also up for reelection this year.
With that backdrop, Abbott’s debate performance is one political observers will be watching closely.
“Abbott and DeSantis are both shooting for pole position in the race for the GOP nomination in 2024,” said GOP donor Dan Eberhart, who has contributed to DeSantis. “But it’s still early. A lot can happen in the next year.”
The rivalry between Abbott and DeSantis garnered headlines recently after the Florida governor flew a planeload of migrants from the Lone Star State to the wealthy liberal Massachusetts enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, a move that carried echoes of a gambit that Abbott himself had made.
The Texas governor garnered headlines earlier this year when he sent busloads of migrants from the state’s southern border to Democratic-controlled cities including Washington, New York and Chicago. The move boosted his national profile as immigration once again became a hot-button issue ahead of the midterms, and stoked speculation about his national ambitions as some Republicans mull alternatives to former President Trump for the 2024 presidential race.
Yet DeSantis’s stunt was reportedly not well-received by Abbott and his allies. According to The New York Times, the migrant flight irked Abbott, who hadn’t been notified of the plan beforehand.
“The pre-primary for the governor lane for the 2024 Republican primary is happening now,” Eberhart said. “Abbott spent months planning Texas’s relocation program, and DeSantis sweeps in and grabs the headlines with a single planeload of immigrants.”
The Texas governor’s allies and other Republicans have brushed off the notion that there are tensions between the two. Abbott’s campaign praised his relationship with DeSantis in a statement to The Hill.
“Governor Abbott and Governor DeSantis have a solid working relationship, having worked together on various initiatives through Republican governors organizations,” said Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Abbott. “We’re grateful to Governor DeSantis and other Republican governors who sent law enforcement personnel and resources to help secure the Texas-Mexico border last year after Governor Abbott launched Operation Lone Star.”
“Governor Abbott encourages and welcomes all his fellow governors to engage in this effort to secure the border and focus on the failing and illegal efforts of the Biden-Harris Administration to continue these reckless open border policies,” she continued. “Until President Biden does his job and takes our nation’s border security seriously, this crisis will continue unabated.”
Other observers see it differently, however, noting the obvious parallels between the two governors’ strategies.
“I think you can absolutely tell there is a rivalry,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“They have positioned themselves, they’re posturing in a way that is playing to the Republican base right now, that is playing to the Trumpist concepts in the base,” he continued. “It’s kind of funny how they’re paralleling each other with talking about illegal immigration, about drugs, about Florida values, Texas values, that sort of thing.”
The states are also similar in that they are large and populous, as well as Republican strongholds. Yet Florida has in many ways become the center of the Republican universe, with Trump holding court at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.
DeSantis, meanwhile, saw his own national profile skyrocket after he allowed Florida’s localities to stay open for much of the height of the coronavirus pandemic, lauding the state as an “oasis of freedom.” Republican donors, including Trump donors, have donated heavily to DeSantis’s efforts.
The Florida governor is also seen as the leading 2024 GOP contender in the case that Trump does not run, according to numerous polls. Abbott has not seen the same kind of 2024 speculation.
“I don’t think he quite gets the nuances that come with having to make almost immediate pivots when it comes to political issues,” Taylor said, referring to Abbott. “DeSantis is a much smoother, much more polished guy in this respect, and he just seems to be someone who has a much better focus.”
Eberhart noted that a rivalry between DeSantis and Abbott could potentially benefit Trump in the case that he decides to launch a third presidential bid.
“The more they try to one-up each other, the more they are creating a lane for Trump if he does want to run. Abbott considers DeSantis as Johnny-come-lately, but DeSantis refuses to play that role and has been stepping into Abbott’s spotlight,” Eberhart said “That has to irk Abbott, who is more deliberative than DeSantis. He considers his moves carefully which can be a disadvantage against someone like DeSantis who keeps his own counsel and often moves quickly once he thinks something is a good idea.”
Neither Abbott nor DeSantis have made any announcements regarding future presidential bids, and for the moment, they appear focused on their reelections in their respective states. While Abbott leads O’Rourke in Texas polls, DeSantis is also ahead of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (D) in most polling out of Florida.
And as Abbott preps for his debate against O’Rourke on Friday, DeSantis is garnering the national spotlight once more as he leads his state’s response to Hurricane Ian.
Abbott’s Texas showdown against O’Rourke on the debate stage is not likely to garner a ton of attention from the general public, given its scheduling on a Friday night in a state where high school Friday Night Lights is almost a religion.
“It’s not like it’s on a Tuesday evening in a state at 7 p.m. in the state where everybody could tune in and most likely would,” Taylor said.
“And it’s not just high school football, it’s Friday night,” he added. “How many people are going to be sitting in a bar or restaurant this Friday going, ‘oh look, the debate is on’?”