DeSantis risks backlash from Florida voters with migrant flights

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) faces 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 has been hailed by conservatives as a powerful protest at 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.

“He obviously made his base very happy with that move, that stunt,” said Adelys Ferro, the executive director of the Venezuelan-American caucus. “But there are a lot of people who are more of the center and independents who are very disgusted and reject it all.”

“We are Venezuelan Americans and we vote, and we will vote in November,” she added. “And we will never elect anyone to do that.”

The migrant flight from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard — and DeSantis’ promise of more to come — has already sparked a slew of legal activity. A Texas sheriff said Monday his office will investigate the legality of the flight as a Florida state legislature prepares to file a lawsuit to stop 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 nominee who faces re-election this year, remains an open question.

On the one hand, there is a risk that the move will conflict with Latin American voters, particularly in South Florida, a voting-rich part of the state with a huge community of exiles who have 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 have to be careful about taking Hispanics for granted in 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 may not consider themselves Republicans. They are still open to hearing the other side.”

Still, the migrant flight also has the potential to make DeSantis even more popular with conservatives ahead of a likely run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

“This is a story that has propelled him to the top of the national conversation in recent 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 it as a good thing.”

And for re-election, DeSantis appears well positioned to defeat his Democratic rival, Charlie Crist, a former congressman and Republican governor of Florida. Polls in this race not only consistently show DeSantis leading, but he also has a steep financial advantage. DeSantis has raised more than $130 million for his re-election efforts 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 gained national notoriety during the COVID-19 pandemic by taking a laissez-faire approach to the outbreak, despite warnings from public health officials.

“He bet on COVID and it paid off,” said Schale. “In the eyes of the public it was a successful victory. The lesson here was: he can get involved in these divisive issues and he won’t pay a fine for it.”

Shell said DeSantis and his campaign have already bet that support from the GOP’s conservative base will be enough to win a second term in November and that there is little real political risk of potentially turning off convincing voters.

“People on my side don’t always give him the credit he deserves,” said Schale. “They don’t think they have to win convincing voters to win re-election. They figured they were safe in this room.”

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

“It seems like his game plan is to raise his national profile and highlight as much of his base as possible and not really bother to appeal to those in the middle,” said Navarro, who is based in Miami. “No doubt sadly most of his base likes what he does, including other Floridians who came to this country fleeing repression but seem to have forgotten. I really don’t get it.”

A Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday found that while voters are divided on sending migrants to more liberal parts of the country, the tactic is still popular with Republicans. Sixty-six percent of GOP voters said it was appropriate, while just 19 percent said it was inappropriate.

That’s not to say there couldn’t be consequences for DeSantis. In addition to criminal investigations being conducted in Texas by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, some of the migrants 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 were involved in a “fraudulent and discriminatory system”.

The migrants are demanding unspecified damages in this case.

DeSantis isn’t the only Republican governor who has shipped migrants from the US southern border to more Democratic-leaning parts of the country. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is also up for re-election, has been doing so for months, as has Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R).

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

DeSantis has defended the move, arguing that illegal immigration isn’t just a problem for border states. Officials in his administration have also argued that the migrants who were sent to Martha’s Vineyard “were homeless, hungry and sleeping outside in parking lots” before their trip, to give the endeavor a humanitarian veneer.

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

Amandi, the Democratic pollster, also said Republicans he spoke to in the state were not pleased.

“In their heart of hearts, they know there will be an impact,” he said.

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