The Washington Post: Opinion: Four ways to think about Abbott’s and DeSantis’s 2022 prospects
The Washington Post – September 1, 2021
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Even pre-pandemic, Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida were obsessed with “own the libs” moves that at times broke with core democratic values, mostly notably DeSantis’s efforts to make it harder for felons to regain their voting rights. But covid-19 has shown the serious danger in having America’s second- and third-largest states run by people more interested in attacking Democrats than governing.
Amid the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant, Abbott and DeSantis are not only refusing to take serious actions (such as mandating vaccinations and mask-wearing) to stop the spread, but even worse, they are trying to block cities, schools and businesses in their states from taking such actions. Their governing during the pandemic has made clear that Abbott and DeSantis are essentially Donald Trump without the tweets. If they win reelection next year, expect them to spend 2023 and beyond (A) being even meaner to liberal-leaning people in their states and (B) running for the GOP presidential nomination by emphasizing such Trump-like cruelty to people who aren’t Republicans.
America would be better off if Abbott and DeSantis don’t get that far. But is there any chance of them losing their reelection bids? Maybe. Here are four ways to think about the two Trumpian governors’ prospects:
They will win, because Florida and Texas are fairly Republican. Florida was one of the few states that moved to the right from 2016 (when Hillary Clinton lost by 1 percentage point) to 2020 (when Joe Biden lost by 3). Biden didn’t come particularly close in Texas (losing by 6 percentage points). White voters in Florida and Texas, even those with college degrees, are more Republican-leaning than in Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, in part because so many of them are evangelical Christians. Latinos in both states lean Democratic overall, but are more GOP-friendly than those in states such as Nevada. Democrats may simply not be able to win races in these two states in the near future.
They will win, because they are incumbent GOP governors running in a year favorable to the GOP. Incumbency usually gives a few points to a candidate. Being from the party opposite the president in a midterm election usually helps, too. And while DeSantis barely won (0.4 percentage points) in 2018, Abbott’s margin of victory was 13 percentage points. So it is easy to imagine these conservative-leaning states, with the worst of covid-19 likely past by next November, sticking with their pugnacious governors.
Abbott wins but DeSantis loses, because he faces a particularly strong opponent. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist was elected statewide as education commissioner, attorney general and governor back when he was a Republican. But he left the GOP as it moved right and is now a Democratic congressman representing the area around St. Petersburg. Crist, now running for governor again, might be uniquely “electable” in the way that Biden was in 2020 — as an older (65) White man with a record that makes it clear that he is not the most left-wing of Democrats. But again, Biden-style politics did not work in Florida (or Texas) last year; would it work for Crist in 2022?
Abbott and DeSantis both might lose, if Democrats take a Stacey Abrams-like approach. The new voting restrictions adopted in both states and the abysmal handling of covid-19 by Abbott and DeSantis create an opening for Democratic candidates to run as normal, pro-democracy, pro-mask-wearing politicians, avoiding the kind of liberal vs. conservative ideological battle that would be hard for Democrats to win in these two states. And Democrats have a model for flipping Florida and Texas in the state of Georgia, which went blue in 2020 in part because of the work of Abrams and other Democrats there to mobilize younger, urban and minority voters.
So perhaps a dynamic young candidate who can spur high turnout while avoiding very left-wing stands could be a winner. The Democrats have one strong prospect to run this kind of campaign in Florida — 43-year-old Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is already running in the primary against Crist. They have two in Texas: former congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, 48, who is strongly considering a gubernatorial run; and 30-year-old Lina Hidalgo, the chief executive of Houston-area Harris County.
The safest bet is some combination of my points one and two: Abbott and DeSantis overcome their terrible pandemic governance because Florida and Texas lean Republican and that lean will be heightened with a Democratic president in the White House. “Everything has to go well” for Democrats to win in Texas, said Tory Gavito, the Austin-based president of the progressive group Way to Win.
But maybe everything will go well for Democrats. Because it’s essential that they figure out a way to stop these mini-Trumps next year, before Abbott and DeSantis can spend another four years “owning the libs” in their states and, potentially, across the country in the White House.