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

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 try to score points in 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 exactly the reaction 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 about the migrants, at an event on Sunday in Green Bay, Wis. “They were hungry. And they hit the jackpot to be able to be in the wealthiest sanctuary city in the world.”

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

Yet the move signals that Mr. DeSantis could be eyeing a future beyond Florida and aiming to secure his place in 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 as the clear second choice.

“This is a sign of someone who is 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 idea of transporting migrants to Democratic strongholds was considered by the Trump administration. Stephen Miller, the former president’s policy adviser, and others in the Trump White House pushed the move as a way to strike back against sanctuary cities that refused to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The plan was rejected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials over liability and budgetary concerns.

Migrants being transported from Martha’s Vineyard on the ferry headed to the mainland on Friday.Credit…Matt Cosby for The New York Times

Mr. DeSantis secured $12 million in the state budget to transport unauthorized immigrants planning to come to Florida, an amount that suggested more flights are to come. He said the migrants had 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 effort was part of a political strategy intended to lift his party in the midterms. Republican strategists say he and the other governors are simply pointing out the hypocrisy of Democratic Party leaders, who they see as far removed from the surge of migrants and their impact on local communities.

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

The 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 in 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, according to a new poll by The New York Times and Siena College. On the issue of legal immigration, they are evenly split.

“This border is now an issue in these elections,” Mr. DeSantis said on Sunday, at the event in Wisconsin. “And I think it’s something that our candidates need to take.”

Democrats moved quickly to cast Mr. DeSantis as heartless and “un-American.”

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

The Democrat who is Mr. DeSantis’s opponent in 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 in the ad. “That is lost on Ron DeSantis. For him, it’s always putting politics over peoples’ lives.”

Democrats see an opportunity in part because the migrants he sent to Martha’s Vineyard were overwhelmingly from Venezuela. Florida is home to the largest population of Venezuelan immigrants in the country. And Venezuelan voters are an important demographic in the perennial swing state that helped cement Mr. Trump’s victory in the state in the 2020 election.

But Mr. DeSantis’s move suggests that he believes his re-election effort is operating 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 may not be focused on swing voters in his home state at all.

“My guess is that it seems pretty favorable, at least in terms of the one audience he has right now, which is Republican voters,” said Ed Goeas, a longtime Republican strategist.

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