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Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and likely presidential candidate, rallied Houston-area Republicans on Friday with a speech that proclaimed his state as Texas’ new partner on the front lines in the battle against the political left.
With Austin buzzing about an unspoken rivalry between the country’s two biggest Republican-controlled states, DeSantis paid homage to Texas’ boisterous self-image — and said Florida is gaining its own “big sense of pride” under his leadership. He said it is being noticed “all the way up to the fella in the White House,” referring to his potential opponent in 2024: President Joe Biden.
“They know you don’t mess with Texas — and you don’t tread on Florida,” DeSantis said. “I really believe if it hasn’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’ remarks at the annual Harris County Lincoln Reagan Dinner were part of a two-day swing through Texas that included a similar event Saturday for the Dallas County GOP. The events come as DeSantis increasingly travels outside Florida in advance of an anticipated bid against former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.
Texas’ own governor, Greg Abbott, has not ruled out his own White House bid, fueling the notion of a budding competition between the two megastates.
DeSantis hardly mentioned Abbott, but his speech was filled with flattering references to Texas and its recent efforts to lead the way nationally on conservative policy.
Rather than stoke any rivalry, he spoke multiple times about the two states as new equals in a culture war, invoking the Alamo as he promised to “never, ever surrender to the woke mob.”
“The state of Florida — and the state of Texas — is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis said, refashioning a line from his January inaugural address to include the Lone Star State.
Still, DeSantis was not afraid to trumpet Florida — and himself. He said he made his state a “refuge of sanity” during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurning federal pressure to keep the state shut down and perhaps, he added, showing “our own form of Texas swagger.” And referring to more recent events, he bragged that Florida was the only state brave enough to publicly oppose the draft curriculum of a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies.
DeSantis also boasted about his two gubernatorial elections. He said that even though he won with only 50% of the vote in 2018, he “earned 100% of the executive power, and I intend to use it to advance our agenda, to stand up for the people I represent and make good on my campaign promises.”
“I am just not going to be a potted plant and let the left determine the shape of the debate, let the media shape the debate,” DeSantis said. “I’m going on offense.”
That approach, DeSantis said, led to his blowout reelection win last year, declaring the Florida Democratic Party “dead” as a result.
The Houston dinner was closed to the media, keeping with DeSantis’ hostility toward traditional journalists. But at least one attendee broadcast DeSantis’ speech live on Facebook, and The Texas Tribune separately obtained an audio recording of it. The Dallas event was also closed to the media.
In Dallas, DeSantis also headlined a yearly fundraising dinner for the county GOP. He gave a similar speech as he did in Houston and then participated in a "fireside chat" with his wife, Casey DeSantis, who is one of his closest political advisers.
The Harris County GOP said its dinner drew over 1,400 attendees and raised $1 million for the group.
Proceeds from the fundraising dinners benefit the county parties, but they also give DeSantis a large audience with activists and donors in two cities that are home to some of the party’s biggest contributors nationwide. DeSantis was expected to privately meet with donors on the sidelines of both Texas events.
During his speech in Houston, DeSantis mentioned one top donor to Texas Republicans by name — Dick Weekley — saying Florida was working to catch up to Texas on Weekley’s longtime cause, tort reform. In Dallas, DeSantis was introduced by Lisa Troutt, the wife of another major GOP donor in the state, Kenny Troutt. DeSantis saluted them as"warriors for our values." He also recognized Doug Deason, the Dallas businessman and major Trump donor who has shown interest in the GOP moving on from the former president. Deason got an award at the dinner.
"Great job, my man, you're a good friend and you're a patriot," DeSantis said. "You've made a big difference for a lot of people and for our country.
In Houston, DeSantis got a rousing introduction from state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, chair of the Senate Education Committee. Creighton traveled to Tallahassee in December to meet with DeSantis about education issues.
Creighton lavished praise on DeSantis but also emphasized what the Texas Senate is prioritizing this session. He nodded to one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities, saying Texas “will stand against the teaching of critical race theory by woke tenured professors.”
Creighton was most emphatic about a priority of both Patrick and Abbott: a “school choice” program that would redirect tax revenue to let parents take their kids out of public schools.
“This Texas legislative session, we will make clear that Texas parents have the rights they deserve in the public school classroom and with alternative education opportunities and with tax dollars that belong to families, not the government,” Creighton said.
Florida already has a suite of school-choice programs, and in his speech, DeSantis wished Texas luck in “bringing a big school-choice package across the finish line.”
The lineups for both the Houston and Dallas events also included U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin, a sign of his higher profile statewide since he served as a key negotiator for conservatives on Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to House speaker in January.
Abbott was not expected to attend DeSantis’ appearances. He was in San Antonio on Friday and appeared Saturday in Austin to address a conservative legal group at the University of Texas.
Democrats bashed DeSantis' visit, while also seeking to stoke tensions with Abbott.
“Ron DeSantis is an empty suit who pushes as far as he possibly can on nonsensical culture war issues because he thinks it’ll win him support in a Republican presidential primary,” the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, said in a statement. “It says a lot about our own inept governor that he’s not even shrewd enough to win these ridiculous culture war battles against the Pee-wee Herman of the Republican Party, and that he’d lose in a landslide in a primary to clowns like Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump.”
Hinojosa added that DeSantis nonetheless holds "wildly extreme views on everything that actually matters — including that he wants to gut Social Security and Medicare." CNN recently reported that DeSantis was supportive of privatizing the two programs during his 2012 congressional campaign.