DeSantis risks voter backlash in Florida with migrant flights

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing mounting scrutiny in his home state over his controversial decision last week to fly dozens of mostly Venezuelan migrants to the elite resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. 

While the move was lauded by conservatives as a powerful protest of the Biden administration’s approach to border security, it has sparked a wave of criticism from Democrats and members of Florida’s vast Hispanic community, a politically influential force in the Sunshine State.

“With this move, this stunt, obviously he made his base very happy,” said Adelys Ferro, the executive director of the Venezuelan American Caucus. “But there are many people more toward the middle and people who are independents that are very disgusted and that reject all of this.”

“We are Venezuelan Americans and we vote, and we’re going to vote in November,” she added. “And we’re never going to vote for somebody who does this.”

The migrant flight from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard — and DeSantis’s promise of more to come — have already prompted a slew of legal activity. A Texas sheriff said on Monday that his office would investigate the legality of the flight, while a Florida state lawmaker is preparing to file a lawsuit seeking to block 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 contender who is facing reelection this year, remains an open question. 

On one hand, the move risks running afoul of Latino voters, especially in South Florida, a vote-rich part of the state with a massive community of exiles who fled oppressive governments in Latin America. The GOP has strengthened its position among Latinos in recent years, though strategists on both sides of the aisle say those gains aren’t set in stone.

“I think we need to be cautious about taking Hispanics for granted in the same way that Democrats took them for granted,” one Republican strategist who has worked on campaigns in Florida said. “We’re talking about voters who like Republican policies, but maybe don’t consider themselves Republicans. They’re still open to hearing the other side.”

Still, the migrant flight also carries the potential to further endear DeSantis to conservatives ahead of a prospective bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. 

“This is a story that has put him at the forefront of the national conversation for the last couple of weeks,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster who helped former President Obama win the state in 2008 and 2012. “So from his perspective, as long as he doesn’t get charged, I think he sees it as a good thing.”

And as far as his reelection bid goes, DeSantis appears well positioned to defeat his Democratic rival Charlie Crist, a former congressman and Republican Florida governor. Not only does polling in that race regularly show DeSantis in the lead, but he also has a steep financial edge. DeSantis has raised more than $130 million for his reelection effort so far.

Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran 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 rose to national prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic by taking a laissez-faire approach to the outbreak despite warnings from public health officials. 

“He made a gamble on COVID and it paid off,” Schale said. “In the eyes of the public, it was a successful win. The lesson here was: He can lean into these divisive issues and he doesn’t pay a penalty for it.” 

Schale said that DeSantis and his campaign have already bet that the support of the GOP’s conservative base will be enough for him to clinch a second term in November and that there’s little actual political risk in potentially turning off persuadable voters. 

“Guys on my side don’t always give him the credit he deserves,” Schale said. “They don’t think they need to win persuadable voters to win reelection. They made the calculus that they’re safe being in this space.” 

Ana Navarro, a longtime GOP strategist who is a co-host of ABC’s “The View,” agreed with Schale’s assessment that DeSantis is worried only about appealing to the most conservative voters — and that includes Republican voters who fled repressive foreign governments themselves. 

“Seems 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 likes what he’s doing, sadly, including other Floridians who came to this country fleeing repression, but seem to have forgotten. I really don’t get it.” 

One poll from Morning Consult released on Wednesday found that while voters are split on the propriety of sending migrants to more liberal parts of the country, the tactic is still popular among Republicans. Sixty-six percent of GOP voters said that it is appropriate, while only 19 percent said it is improper.

That’s not to say that there couldn’t be consequences for DeSantis. In addition to the criminal investigation being carried out by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar in Texas, some of the migrants who were flown 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 are seeking unspecified damages in that case. 

DeSantis isn’t the only Republican governor who’s shipped migrants away from the U.S. southern border and into more-Democratic leaning parts of the country. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who’s also up for reelection, has been doing so for months, as has Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R). 

But what made DeSantis’s effort even more controversial was the fact that none of the 48 migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard had ever set foot in Florida. What’s more, the migrants were reportedly misled about their destination. 

DeSantis has defended the move, arguing that illegal immigration isn’t just an issue for border states to deal with. Officials in his administration have also argued that the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard were “homeless, hungry, sleeping outside in parking lots” prior to making the trip, seeking to put a humanitarian spin on the endeavor.

Still, DeSantis’s critics say there’s no moral ambiguity when it comes to what the governor did. Ferro, the Venezuelan American Caucus executive director, accused DeSantis of playing politics with a humanitarian crisis, saying that “people — even many Republicans — are mortified and disgusted.”

Amandi, the Democratic pollster, also said that Republicans he has spoken to in the state aren’t pleased. 

“In their heart of hearts, they know this will have repercussions,” he said. 

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