DeSantis, Abbott risk blowback amid appeals to conservative base

Republican Govs. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe CDC's Title 42 order fuels racism and undermines public health Chicago sues police union over refusal to comply with vaccine mandate Crist says as Florida governor he would legalize marijuana, expunge criminal records MORE of Florida and Greg AbbottGreg AbbottSunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Mike Siegel: Potential McConaughey candidacy a 'sideshow' in Texas governor race On The Money — Big businesses side with Biden in Texas vaccine standoff MORE of Texas are enacting policies in their states that are popular with the national conservative base but that risk backlash as the two governors contend with their own reelection bids next year and possible presidential runs in 2024.

Abbott made headlines on Monday when he signed an overhaul of the state’s election procedures, which places restrictions on voting in the state. And just last week he signed into law a sweeping bill that outlaws most abortions in Texas after six weeks of pregnancy.

In Florida, meanwhile, DeSantis has been embroiled in a fight with school boards over mask mandates. DeSantis has maintained that localities should be banned from enacting mandates despite a rise in coronavirus cases.

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“It’s a race to the base,” said one GOP strategist. “They’re still both fighting very similar fights.”

Their efforts come amid a growing sense among observers that former President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE has decided to run again in 2024. Abbott and DeSantis are seen as among the most prominent Republicans weighing their own presidential bids, though DeSantis recently dismissed the reports as “nonsense.”

But the two governors are also facing declining approval numbers in their respective states. Fifty percent of Texans said they disapproved of the job Abbott was doing in Texas, while 41 said they approved, according to a survey from The Texas Policy Project released on Monday. That marks a 3-point decrease in the governor’s approval rating and a 6-point increase in his disapproval rating from June.

Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Politics Program, told The Hill that many of Abbott’s recently enacted policies on issues including gun rights, elections and abortion access were catering to the most conservative wing of his party ahead of next year’s gubernatorial race.

“Gov. Abbott’s policy direction has been focused on satisfying the needs of various activated constituencies within the Republican primary electorate here in Texas,” Blank said. “With two relatively well-established primary challengers in Texas for the 2022 gubernatorial election, Abbott has made an extra effort to go out and satisfy these constituencies within the Republican Party.”

In Florida, DeSantis has also seen his approval rating drop. A Morning Consult Political Intelligence poll released on Tuesday showed the governor with a 48 percent approval rating and a 48 percent disapproval rating. Another poll released in July showed DeSantis with a 54 percent approval rating and a 40-percent disapproval rating.

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DeSantis has been at the forefront of the fight against mask and vaccine mandates, finding himself in battles with Florida school districts looking to impose mandates for safety measures. The governor has been widely praised by conservatives over the past year for his laidback approach to the coronavirus pandemic, citing the state’s economic progress throughout the pandemic.

“DeSantis has been more of a driver, and you’ve seen Abbott a week or two later try to catch up in many respects,” said the GOP strategist.

Abbott, who unlike DeSantis enacted a statewide mask mandate last year, has since taken an approach similar to the Florida governor’s. But as coronavirus cases rise amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, the two are finding themselves in uncharted territory.

Polling shows a deep partisan divide on the issue of mask mandates in schools, but it also shows the majority of American parents supporting the measures.

An Axios-Momentive survey released on Tuesday found that 59 percent of parents with school-aged children said they were in favor of mask mandates for both students and staff, while 30 percent said they opposed the measures.

Eighty-five percent of Democratic parents and 66 percent of independent parents surveyed said they were for the mandates, but only 32 percent of Republican parents said they were in favor.

“On that issue alone, I think in Texas and in Florida, you’re seeing the general electorate push back on it, meaning it’s muddying the waters for both of them who face reelection next year, so it’s a very big political gamble,” said the Republican strategist.

The two leaders have also been aligned on voting restrictions, or what many Republicans have dubbed as election integrity. On Tuesday, Abbott signed a measure that restricts the hours that counties can make early voting available and does away with drive-through voting. Additionally, the measure gives partisan poll watchers more authority.

Earlier this year, DeSantis signed a measure restricting when ballot boxes can be open, as well as mandating that the boxes only be open and available when election offices and early voting sites are open.

Abortion has become a hot topic in both states over the past week following the enactment of a new law in Texas that bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically around the six-week mark, which the Supreme Court allowed to go into effect. DeSantis said last week that he would “look more significantly” at similar legislation in Florida.

The push from DeSantis and Abbott comes as issues championed by the conservative grassroots base, including opposition to socialism, critical race theory, "defunding" the police and tech censorship, have garnered national attention.

“The movement is bubbling up from below,” said Tom Klingenstein, the chairman of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.

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DeSantis and Abbott are both seen as taking a page out of Trump’s playbook with their recent hard-line stances. 

“Donald Trump set a pathway to show whether you like it or not, standing for your convictions of what you believe to be the correct thing to do for the people that elected you to office, it’s not a bad thing,” said Jennifer Carroll, the former lieutenant governor of Florida and national spokesperson for the conservative women’s group Maggie’s List.

“That sort of leadership is lacking, particularly on the national level, where it’s gamesmanship. People are one-upping the other and pointing the finger and throwing the blame while these two particular governors are doing something about it,” she continued.

However, some experts argue that some of their more restrictive policies in recent months may not translate well to national electorates.

“It’s not clear to me how the sum total of this legislation doesn’t potentially make Abbott too extreme for a national Republican audience, including Republicans from a number of states that are far less conservative than Texas,” Blank said.

He noted that both Abbott and DeSantis were “doubling down” on policies that may not be popular in a more diverse national electorate.

“It’s going to be interesting to see, not only going into the 2022 election but the 2024 election and beyond, whether these two governors are showing a path forward for Republican elected officials in a country that is becoming more urban and more diverse, or whether this is some kind of a final gasp in these big urban, diverse states to hold on to an electorate that is in general shrinking,” Blank said.

“Either Abbott has unlocked the key to how Republicans are successful in a young diverse state, or he’s pissing away the Republicans' chances to appeal to these voters for the next few decades,” Blank noted. “It remains to be seen.”