Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) faces increasing scrutiny in his home state over his controversial decision last week to airlift dozens of mostly Venezuelan migrants , to the elite resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
While the move was hailed by conservatives as a powerful protest against the Biden administration’s approach to border security, it sparked a wave of criticism from Democrats and members of the broad Hispanic community. of Florida, a politically influential force in the Sunshine State.
“With this move, this stunt, obviously he made his base very happy,” said Adelys Ferro, executive director of the Venezuelan American Caucus. “But there are a lot of people who are more middle and independent who are very disgusted and reject all of this.”
“We are Venezuelan Americans and we vote, and we will vote in November,” she added. “And we’re never going to vote for anyone who does that.”
The flight of Texas migrants to Martha’s Vineyard — and DeSantis’ promise of more to come — has already sparked a flurry of legal activity. A Texas sheriff said Monday his office would investigate the legality of the flight, while a Florida state lawmaker prepares to file a lawsuit aimed at stopping DeSantis from transporting more migrants from the southern border.
But whether the migrant flights – dubbed a political stunt by critics – will weigh on DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate who faces re-election this year, remains an open question.
On the one hand, the move is likely to clash with Latino voters, especially in South Florida, a voice-rich part of the state with a massive community of exiles who have fled oppressive Latin American governments. . The GOP has cemented its standing among Latinos in recent years, though strategists on both sides of the aisle say those gains aren’t set in stone.
“I think we have to be careful about taking Hispanics for granted the same way Democrats took them for granted,” said a Republican strategist who has worked on campaigns in Florida. “We’re talking about voters who like Republican politics, but who may not consider themselves Republicans. They are always open to hearing the other side.
Yet the migrant flight also has the potential to endear DeSantis more to conservatives ahead of a potential bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
“It’s a story that put him front and center in the national conversation for the past two weeks,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster who helped former President Obama win the state. in 2008 and 2012. his perspective, as long as he’s not charged, I think he sees that as a good thing.
And when it comes to his re-election bid, DeSantis looks well-positioned to defeat Democratic rival Charlie Crist, a former congressman and Republican governor of Florida. Not only do polls in this race consistently show DeSantis in the lead, but he also has a massive financial advantage. DeSantis has raised over $130 million for his re-election effort so far.
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who led Obama’s campaign operation in the Sunshine State, also noted that the migrant flight isn’t the only controversial move that has paid off politically for DeSantis. The Florida governor has gained national notoriety during the COVID-19 pandemic for taking a hands-off approach to the outbreak despite warnings from public health officials.
“He made a bet on COVID and it paid off,” Schale said. “In the eyes of the public, this is a successful victory. The lesson here was this: He can lean into these divisive issues and he doesn’t pay a penalty for it. »
Schale said DeSantis and his campaign had already bet that support from the conservative GOP base would be enough to land him a second term in November and that there was little real political risk in potentially turning off persuasive voters.
“Guys on my side don’t always give him the credit he deserves,” Schale said. “They don’t think they have to win over convincing voters to be re-elected. They calculated that they were safe in this space.
Ana Navarro, a longtime GOP strategist who co-hosts ABC’s “The View,” agreed with Schale’s assessment that DeSantis only cares about appealing to the most conservative voters — and that includes Republican voters who themselves fled repressive foreign governments.
“It looks like his game plan is to raise his national profile and bring out as much of his base as possible and not really worry about appealing to those in the middle,” said Navarro, who is based in Miami. . “Without a doubt most of his base loves what he does, unfortunately including other Floridians who came to this country to escape repression but seem to have forgotten about him. I really do not understand.
A Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that while voters are split on whether to send migrants to more liberal parts of the country, the tactic is still popular among Republicans. Sixty-six percent of GOP voters said it was appropriate, while only 19 percent said it was inappropriate.
That’s not to say there couldn’t be consequences for DeSantis. In addition to the criminal investigation by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar in Texas, some of the migrants who were airlifted from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last week filed a class action lawsuit in Massachusetts on Tuesday, arguing that DeSantis and other state officials engaged in a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme.”
The migrants seek unspecified damages in this case.
DeSantis isn’t the only Republican governor to ship migrants from the US southern border to more Democratic parts of the country. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who is also running for re-election, has been doing so for months, as has Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R).
But what made DeSantis’ effort even more controversial was the fact that none of the 48 migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard had ever set foot in Florida. Moreover, the migrants would have been misled about their destination.
DeSantis defended the move, arguing that illegal immigration isn’t just a problem for border states. His administration officials also argued that migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard were “homeless, starving, sleeping outside in parking lots” before making the trip, seeking to put a humanitarian spin on the effort.
Still, DeSantis critics say there is no moral ambiguity when it comes to what the governor did. Ferro, the executive director of the Venezuelan American Caucus, accused DeSantis of playing politics with a humanitarian crisis, saying “people — even many Republicans — are mortified and disgusted.”
Amandi, the Democratic pollster, also said Republicans he’s spoken to in the state aren’t happy.
“Deep in their hearts they know it will have repercussions,” he said.