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Greg Abbott’s Policy Death Race With Ron DeSantis

The Texas governor seems bent on out-MAGAing his Florida rival. People are going to get hurt.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Texas Governor Greg Abbott

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s promise to pardon Daniel Perry, the man who was just convicted of killing Black Lives Matter protester Garrett Foster, is many things, including infuriating, hypocritical, hurtful, dangerous, and stupid. It is also profoundly petty, a tantrum barely passing as governance, because (obviously?) there are no principles involved, nor is there a legitimate legal argument. There is just Greg Abbott’s profound desire to unseat Ron DeSantis as most violent participant in the culture wars. The ongoing gamesmanship between the two governors may be the most toxic dynamic in American politics. It is surely going to prove fatal to many others before it’s over.

The idea that Abbott and Texas are somehow to the left of Florida on almost any issue demands an examination of the political scale at an absurdly high level of magnification. Indeed, on a few key points, Abbott and the Texas legislature were quicker than DeSantis to transmogrify whole Fox News segments into law: Texas had an anti–“critical race theory” bill on the books by the start of the 2021 school year; Abbott made a show of shipping undocumented migrants off to blue states in April of the same year, months before DeSantis committed his own human-trafficking violation by luring recent border crossers onto a plane to Martha’s Vineyard.

Still, in the eyes of Trumpish Texans specifically, Abbott’s the one who’s been caught playing catch-up with DeSantis ever since Abbott’s pandemic response ran afoul of the modern Republican Party’s most gleeful nihilists. At the beginning of the Covid response, Abbott closed schools, bars, and gyms; he placed restrictions on nursing homes and long-term care facilities to tamp down the spread. He also banned dining in at restaurants. This was so unpopular with Texas conservatives that Abbott’s own lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, went on Tucker Carlson’s show (twice) to insist that senior citizens had been calling him to say they were willing to lay down their lives for their grandchildren’s right to go to Whataburger: “I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me [who say] we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that. Don’t ruin this great American dream.”

If the closing of these gathering places was unpopular with the eugenics crowd, Abbott’s statewide mask mandate during the first summer of the pandemic was absolute heresy. Republicans in eight Texas counties officially censured him for—among other things—not “preserving American and Texas sovereignty and freedom” and failing to “support a free enterprise society unencumbered by government interference.” The state Republican Party chairperson, Allen West, simply referred to the policy as “tyranny.” Last year, West became one of three substantive candidates to challenge Abbott for the party nomination from the right.

None of the far-right carping mattered in the election last fall, when new restrictions on voting helped Abbott run up a double-digit win against Beto O’Rourke. However, Abbott’s primary challengers had scraped together a quarter of the nominating vote, enough for Abbott to remain cautious around the base of his party. He declined to attend the last state party convention and was not mentioned by name in the opening speech by the party chairman, Matt Rinaldi. Instead, Rinaldi gave pointed praise to Lieutenant Governor Patrick and—guess who?—Ron DeSantis, “who have stood up and gone on offense.”

And so Abbott must keep maneuvering to outdo all of DeSantis’s performative cruelty: After DeSantis’s Martha’s Vineyard kidnapping program, Abbott sent two busloads of undocumented immigrants to Kamala Harris’s house—on Christmas. Last year, DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill made him the toast of wingnut media; in January, Abbott declared a “parental bill of rights” an “emergency item” for the state legislature, overriding rules that prohibit state representatives from voting on anything during the first two months of the legislative session. That bill has not yet come up for a floor vote; now its most controversial component is the $8,000-per-child voucher that would go to any parent who pulls their child from a public school for either private or at-home education. DeSantis signed a similar Florida program into law this month; its vouchers are worth $8,700. I wonder if Abbott is mad.

Abbott’s DeSantis thirst is obvious to anyone covering the statehouse. As Scott Braddock, who covers state politics for the Quorum Report newsletter, told Texas Monthly, “Some of us at the Capitol have joked that we need to have Miami Herald subscriptions so that we can read today what Greg Abbott is going to do three days from now.”

Reporters routinely ask Abbott about the rivalry (a contest whose existence would likely be news to DeSantis). Recently, he brushed off the question with glum boilerplate—“The reality is we really just focus on Texas and working for our constituents here in our state”—before getting into gruesome taunts:

While Abbott did not mention Florida or DeSantis by name, he did boast that Texas “has been a national leader” on restricting abortion and expanding gun rights. He alluded to the laws he signed in 2021 that banned most abortions in Texas and allowed the permitless carry of handguns—two conservative policy priorities in which Florida still trails Texas.

Abbott’s decision to pardon Perry is a child with a thousand fathers—racism, callousness, ignorance all among them—but its most potent progenitors are Abbott’s pride in Texas’s laxer-than-thou gun laws and his obsession with getting in good with far-right touts and tastemakers. He even first announced his decision on Twitter, whose whole business model now is “getting in good with far-right touts and tastemakers.” Abbott’s initial statement on the matter came the day after the verdict was announced—after Tucker Carlson devoted a monologue to the issue. Abbott was also apparently responding to the plea of Kyle Rittenhouse, who knows better than most that any movement focused on “triggering the libs” is just going to get people shot.

Pardoning Daniel Perry would be an action with enormous moral consequences that has its roots in ticky-tack anti-woke one-upmanship and toxic masculinity. If Abbott believes he is competing with Ron DeSantis for the soul of the Republican Party, what might be the most grating about all of this is that the stakes—at least where the players are concerned—are so very small. Abbott’s hasty pardon pledge is stunt politics at its absolute worst, a theatrical performance staged solely for the other people occupying the same spotlight. For those trapped in the audience, all the rounds are live and it’s the folks in the cheap seats who will die.