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DeSantis’s Migrant Flights Aim to Jolt Midterms, and Lay Groundwork for 2024

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For months, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona have been busing migrants across the country, using immigrants as political props as they struggle to attain points within the midterm elections and bolster their conservative bona fides.

But last week, Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, supercharged the tactic, flying two chartered planeloads of undocumented migrants out of Texas — about 700 miles from the Florida state line — to Martha’s Vineyard, the moneyed Massachusetts vacation spot frequented by liberal celebrities and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The migrants had not set foot in Florida and said they were misled about their destination. The island was unprepared to handle the influx. But Mr. DeSantis got precisely the response he wanted.

Liberal condemnation. Conservative applause. And national attention.

Days after the migrants got off their planes, Mr. DeSantis flew across the country himself — to events for Republican candidates for governor in Wisconsin and Kansas where he promoted his stunt. He received standing ovations.

“They were homeless,” he said concerning the migrants, at an event on Sunday in Green Bay, Wis. “They were hungry. They usually hit the jackpot to find a way to be within the wealthiest sanctuary city on the planet.”

The ambitious governor is betting that the tactic won’t hurt his re-election race in Florida, long the nation’s largest political battleground, and can reinject the difficulty of border security into the midterm contest. As voters remain focused on economic uncertainty and abortion rights, it stays unclear whether immigration will gain a serious foothold in the ultimate weeks before the election in November.

Yet the move signals that Mr. DeSantis might be eyeing a future beyond Florida and aiming to secure his place within the conversation of potential presidential candidates. Polls show that former President Donald J. Trump is the party’s overwhelming pick in 2024, with Mr. DeSantis because the clear second selection.

“This can be a sign of somebody who’s acting with political impunity because he believes he has political impunity in Florida,” said Fernand R. Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Miami. “I don’t think he makes this move if he didn’t already anticipate it was not a roadblock to him winning re-election.”

Long considered to harbor presidential ambitions, Mr. DeSantis ripped this move directly from the playbook of Mr. Trump, whose rhetoric and political style he has adopted.

The concept of transporting migrants to Democratic strongholds was considered by the Trump administration. Stephen Miller, the previous president’s policy adviser, and others within the Trump White House pushed the move as a technique to strike back against sanctuary cities that refused to totally cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The plan was rejected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials over liability and budgetary concerns.

Mr. DeSantis secured $12 million within the state budget to move unauthorized immigrants planning to return to Florida, an amount that suggested more flights are to return. He said the migrants needed to sign a release form and had been given an informational packet that included a map of Martha’s Vineyard.

But Mr. DeSantis has also been clear that the trouble was a part of a political strategy intended to lift his party within the midterms. Republican strategists say he and the opposite governors are simply stating the hypocrisy of Democratic Party leaders, whom they see as far faraway from the surge of migrants and their impact on local communities.

How Times reporters cover politics. We depend on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they aren’t allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

A spokeswoman for Mr. DeSantis declined to comment for this text.

The general public investigations of Mr. Trump and the fight over the fate of legal abortion heightened Democratic hopes for the midterms over the summer, leaving Republicans scrambling to return the race to issues that break more of their favor — high inflation, economic uncertainty, public safety, immigration.

Polling shows that a majority of voters — 51 percent — say they agree more with the Republican Party than the Democrats on illegal immigration, in line with a latest poll by The Latest York Times and Siena College. On the difficulty of legal immigration, they’re evenly split.

“This border is now a difficulty in these elections,” Mr. DeSantis said on Sunday, on the event in Wisconsin. “And I believe it’s something that our candidates must take.”

Democrats hurried to forged Mr. DeSantis as heartless and “un-American.”

“As a substitute of working with us on solutions, Republicans are playing politics with human beings, using them as props,” President Biden said on Thursday on the Hispanic Caucus Institute Gala in Washington. “What they’re doing is solely incorrect. It’s un-American, it’s reckless and we now have a process in place to administer migrants on the border.”

The Democrat who’s Mr. DeSantis’s opponent within the Florida governor’s race, former Representative Charlie Crist, released a digital ad calling the migrant flights “a cruel political stunt to appeal to his base.”

“My faith teaches me that we’re all children of God,” Mr. Crist said within the ad. “That’s lost on Ron DeSantis. For him, it’s all the time putting politics over peoples’ lives.”

Democrats see a chance partly since the migrants he sent to Martha’s Vineyard were overwhelmingly from Venezuela. Florida is home to the biggest population of Venezuelan immigrants within the country. And Venezuelan voters are a crucial demographic within the perennial swing state that helped cement Mr. Trump’s victory within the state within the 2020 election.

But Mr. DeSantis’s move suggests that he believes his re-election effort is working from such a position of strength that he can afford to potentially repel some moderates in his state, a longtime destination for immigrants.

Some strategists say the governor might not be focused on swing voters in his home state in any respect.

“My guess is that it seems pretty favorable, at the very least by way of the one audience he has immediately, which is Republican voters,” said Ed Goeas, a longtime Republican strategist.

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