ORLANDO, Fla. – Ron DeSantis’s decision to fly dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard marked the latest — and one of the most dramatic — efforts by the Florida governor to court conservatives at home and nationally as he positions himself for a 2024 presidential run.
The arrival of two plane loads of migrants — most of whom appear to be from Venezuela — in the elite Massachusetts resort town signaled a drastic escalation of a tactic used by several Republican state officials in recent months to protest the rise in illegal immigration under the Biden administration.
For DeSantis, a rising Republican star, the stunt appeared tailor-made to woo the GOP’s conservative base as he seeks a second term in the governor’s mansion and weighs a potential White House run. But the move could also carry political risks, especially in a state that has long been a destination for migrants fleeing oppressive governments in Latin America.
“I do think it’s a miscalculation. There are a lot of people coming here that are fleeing desperate conditions, whether it’s Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida.
“These Republican politicians are constantly talking about people trying to escape communism in their home countries, but when they come here looking for a better life, they’re treated like this.”
While the stunt may play well among conservatives nationally, Kennedy said, it could give Democrats an opening to regain lost ground among Florida Latinos, who have drifted increasingly toward the GOP in recent years.
“We are definitely going to do the work to remind these communities that these people don’t stand with you,” Kennedy said. “When it comes to the issue of democracy in Cuba or Venezuela, have these Republicans delivered freedom? Nope.”
Still, illegal immigration remains a top issue for Republican voters nationally.
Not only was it one of the issues that helped propel former President Trump to prominence in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, but a recent poll from Pew Research found that roughly 9 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that increasing security along the U.S. southern border should be an important priority.
And while Florida is far from the U.S.-Mexico border, DeSantis has repeatedly shown a willingness to wade into politics beyond his home state. In just the past month alone, he’s traveled to Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania to stump for Republican candidates, intensifying speculation that he’s moving toward a 2024 White House bid.
DeSantis, of course, isn’t the only Republican governor to get behind the effort to ship migrants out of red states and into Democratic strongholds. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has led an effort to bus migrants out of Texas to places like New York City and Chicago for more than a month.
DeSantis has floated a similar idea for months; earlier this year, he got the Florida state legislature to set aside $12 million for the effort and has even suggested sending migrants who end up in Florida to Delaware, President Biden’s home state. But the arrival of the roughly 50 migrants in Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday marked the first time he has taken credit for such an act.
In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for DeSantis said that blue states like Massachusetts should have to bear the brunt of the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
“States like Massachusetts, New York, and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration through their designation as ‘sanctuary states’ and support for the Biden Administration’s open border policies,” said Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’s communications director.
But even Republicans have said it is hard to view the move separate from the Florida governor’s presidential ambitions. He has quickly emerged as an early favorite for the 2024 GOP nomination, with most public polls showing him as the clear runner-up for the nod should Trump forgo another White House bid.
“He’s running for president,” one Republican donor said. “He’s playing for a national audience of Republican primary voters. He wants to be able to get up on the debate stage with any other Republican candidate and say, ‘I stood up against illegal immigration.’”
Still, the move compounds a line of criticism that has only grown louder since last month when Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a Cuban American and DeSantis’s running mate, suggested in a Spanish-language radio interview that Cuban migrants who were in the state illegally should be bused elsewhere.
Nuñez later sought to address the controversy after facing blowback from many in Florida’s vast Cuban community, arguing that there’s a difference between immigrants who enter the country illegally for economic reasons and those who are fleeing repressive governments.
Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who’s challenging Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) for her Miami-area House seat this year, slammed DeSantis and Nuñez on Thursday and described DeSantis’s decision to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as a misuse of taxpayer dollars to fund “a political stunt by a governor who wants to be president.”
“It’s something that the extreme Trumpian base loves,” Taddeo told The Hill in a brief interview on Thursday. “You can’t be talking about anti-communism and be talking about freedom in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and all these other countries if you’re going to do this: mistreat people when they come here fleeing oppressive regimes.”
Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida and DeSantis’s Democratic opponent this year, said that DeSantis’s actions were akin to those of a “dictator,” going as far as to compare the Florida governor to Fidel Castro, the late Cuban dictator whose reign forced a mass exodus of Cubans to Florida over his decades in power.
“He’s a political animal. That’s crystal clear,” Crist told reporters on Thursday. “And unfortunately he’s using human beings to try to make political points like he’s already a dictator.”
DeSantis defended the move on Thursday, saying that his administration was simply stepping up to the plate on illegal immigration because of a lack of action from the White House.
“We take what’s happening at the southern border very seriously, unlike some and unlike the president of the United States who has refused to lift a finger to secure that border and you’ve had millions and millions of people pouring in illegally,” he said.
Nevertheless, Taddeo cast the move as nothing more than an attempt to placate DeSantis’s conservative political base and said that it should be a “wake-up call” for Florida voters — and Latinos, in particular — about his true intentions.
“Will this be an issue in this election?” Taddeo asked. “Absolutely.”