DeSantis risks voter backlash in Florida with migrant flights

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

While the move was hailed by conservatives as a strong protest against 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, he obviously made his base very happy,” said Adelys Ferro, the executive director of the Venezuelan American Caucus. “But there are a lot of people more towards the middle and people who are independent, who are very disgusted and who 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 anybody who does this.”

The migrant flight from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard — and DeSantis’ promise of more to come — has already sparked a flurry of legal activity. A Texas sheriff said Monday that his office would investigate the legality of the flight as a Florida state lawmaker prepares to file a lawsuit trying to block DeSantis from transporting more migrants from the southern border.

But whether the migrant flights — called a political stunt by critics — will weigh on DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate facing re-election this year, remains an open question.

On the one hand, the move risks running afoul of Latino voters, particularly in South Florida, a vote-rich part of the state with a massive community of exiles who fled repressive 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 are not 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 may not consider themselves Republicans. They’re still open to hearing the other side.”

Still, the migrant flight also has the potential to endear DeSantis even more to conservatives ahead of a potential bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

“This is a story that has put him at the forefront of the national conversation for the last few 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 for his re-election bid, DeSantis appears well positioned to defeat his Democratic rival Charlie Crist, a former congressman and Republican Florida governor. Not only do polls in that race regularly show DeSantis in the lead, but he also has a steep financial advantage. DeSantis has raised more than $130 million for his re-election 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. Florida’s 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 bet on COVID and it paid off,” Schale said. “In the public eye, it was a successful victory. The lesson here was: He can lean into these divisive issues, and he’s not paying a penalty for it.”

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

“Guys on my side don’t always give him the credit he deserves,” Schale said. “They don’t think they need to win over persuasive voters to win re-election. They made the calculation that they’re comfortable being in this room.”

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

“It seems like his game plan is to raise his national profile and get as much out of his base as possible and not really worry about appealing to those in the middle,” said Navarro, who is based in Miami. “No doubt, unfortunately, most of his base likes what he’s doing, including other Floridians who came to this country fleeing oppression but seem to have forgotten that. I really don’t get it.”

A Morning Consult poll was published on Wednesday found that while voters are split on sending migrants to more liberal parts of the country, the tactic remains popular among Republicans. Sixty-six percent of GOP voters said it is appropriate, while only 19 percent said it is inappropriate.

That’s not to say it couldn’t have consequences for DeSantis. In addition to the criminal investigation being conducted by Texas Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, 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 government officials got involved. in a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme.”

The migrants are seeking unspecified damages in that case.

DeSantis is not the only Republican governor to send migrants away from America’s southern border and into 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. What’s more, the migrants were allegedly misled about their destination.

DeSantis has stepped up the defense, arguing that illegal immigration is not just a problem for border states to deal with. Officials in his administration have also claimed that the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard were “homeless, hungry, sleeping outside in parking lots” before making the trip, trying 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 Venezuelan American Caucus executive director, accused DeSantis of playing politics with a humanitarian crisis, saying “people — even many Republicans — are impoverished and disgusted.”

Amandi, the Democratic pollster, also said Republicans he has spoken to in the state are not happy.

“In their hearts, they know this will have consequences,” he said.

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