Ron DeSantis' Martha's Vineyard stunt gives Republicans the midterm fight they crave and takes focus off Trump 2024 and abortion rights, GOP operatives say

Ron DeSantis' Martha's Vineyard stunt gives Republicans the midterm fight they crave and takes focus off Trump 2024 and abortion rights, GOP operatives say
·7 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign stop on the Keep Florida Free Tour at the Horsepower Ranch in Geneva. DeSantis faces former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the general election for Florida Governor in November.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign stop on the Keep Florida Free Tour at the Horsepower Ranch in Geneva. DeSantis faces former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the general election for Florida Governor in November.Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • Polling shows voters trust Republicans more than Democrats on immigration and border security.

  • DeSantis' political stunt in Martha's Vineyard rocketed the issues to front-page news ahead of the midterms.

  • Republicans welcome the change of topic from abortion and Trump.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis orchestrated flights sending migrants and asylum seekers from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, many observers saw a stunt aimed at raising the Republican's political profile ahead of a potential 2024 White House run.

But according to GOP operatives, the move also gave Republicans running for Congress the opportunity to home in on illegal immigration and border security, topics they've clamored to put at the center of this fall's midterm elections.

DeSantis' timing is ideal for Republicans and allows the governor to continue casting himself as a national GOP leader that others in the party will follow.

Since August, Democrats have been feeling more optimistic about their forthcoming chances in the November midterms thanks to legislative wins in Congress, decreasing gas prices, and the threat of a GOP push for a nationwide abortion ban.

They've also been able to keep the spotlight on former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly teased a 2024 White House run, is the subject of an FBI investigation over classified documents, and faces a $250 million fraud lawsuit.

Last week, however, DeSantis threw a wrench into the political conversation by taking a page out of Trump's 2016 campaign playbook. The flights carrying migrants injected immigration into the national discussion, forcing the White House to respond.

While DeSantis' actions face a legal challenge and were viewed by critics as a cruel stunt that misled vulnerable people, congressional Republicans openly welcomed that DeSantis highlighted the issue.

Republicans would prefer to keep voters focused on issues where they poll well, including on economic issues, crime, immigration, and border security.

"Democrats are desperately trying to make abortion, Trump, and 2024 the issue," Saul Anuzis, managing partner of Coast to Coast Strategies, LLC, a political consulting firm, told Insider. "The challenge is that the other issues are real and affect folks daily."

"The polling is on the Republican's side," Anuzis added. "They just have to stay on message and not get distracted."

Republicans already knew they held an advantage on these issues even before the Martha's Vineyard controversy. Since March 2021, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republicans in US House races, has sent 357 emails about "Biden's Border Crisis" to reporters.

But DeSantis' Martha's Vineyard flights brought renewed interest to the matter, said a Republican familiar with House races who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly.

"It's brought a lot of attention to the border crisis that had been lost," the person said.

To top it all off, Republicans are closely watching trends that show Democrats are seeing a decline in support from Hispanic voters.

Given all this, there's really no downside to DeSantis stirring the pot on immigration, former Trump White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Insider in an email.

"People who think our border policy is a disaster support what he did — and all states should, in fact, bear the brunt of current immigration policy," Mulvaney said.

"People who like the policy as is hate DeSantis anyway," he added.

But there's been one notable exception among prominent Republicans. Trump's son-in-law and former White House advisor, Jared Kushner, criticized DeSantis' move this week, telling Fox News he was "very troubled" that "human beings" are "being used as political pawns."

Kushner's remarks could offer further evidence that Trump sees DeSantis' attention-grabbing stunt as a threat to his potential 2024 re-election bid.

Local resident Rosemarie Aguero distributes pizzas to a group of Venezuelan Migrants from the back of her pickup truck across from the Migrant Resource Center on September 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. The City of San Antonio Migrant Resource Center is the origin place of two planeloads of mostly Venezuelan migrants who were sent via Florida to Marthas Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron Desantis.
Local resident Rosemarie Aguero distributes pizzas to a group of Venezuelan Migrants from the back of her pickup truck across from the Migrant Resource Center on September 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. The City of San Antonio Migrant Resource Center is the origin place of two planeloads of mostly Venezuelan migrants who were sent via Florida to Martha's Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

Republicans play up illegal immigration issue

Congressional Republicans have welcomed the shift in the national conversation to immigration and border security. The topics could stay in the headlines for weeks if DeSantis follows through on comments he has made publicly about sending migrants to President Joe Biden's home state of Delaware.

The governor's actions allowed Republicans to highlight that 2 million people have been caught entering the US illegally this fiscal year. Republicans also criticized Vice President Kamala Harris' comments in a September 11 NBC Meet the Press interview, in which she said the border was "secure."

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who worked under Trump, said he'd encouraged Republicans in Congress to go to the border so that it would receive more media coverage. But DeSantis and GOP Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas' actions moving migrants "worked" to finally draw attention to the issue, he said.

"No one would cover this issue until he did it," Sean Spicer, who now hosts the Spicer & Co. political talk show on Newsmax, said of DeSantis. "On my show, we cover it almost nightly."

Republicans in Congress have pushed the matter further.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he agreed with DeSantis' actions and used his floor speech to blast Democrats over illegal immigration. The National Republican Senatorial Committee this week tied record-high border apprehensions to the policies of Biden and Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, a Democrat they're trying to unseat in November.

Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also are dropping charges of hypocrisy. They've accused liberal cities of being supportive of permissive immigration policies while not facing the same humanitarian and national security struggles as border towns, which provide aid to thousands of migrants arriving monthly.

They've pointed to comments from Democratic officials who've said cities are overwhelmed after Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey bused migrants to New York and Washington, DC.

"For so many folks on the left, sanctuary cities and welcoming illegal immigrants is a bumper sticker," Spicer said. "They have no idea the reality of it."

The party frequently accuses Biden of not doing enough to help. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has responded that if governors "truly care about border security" they should have encouraged GOP senators to vote in favor of Biden's request for Homeland Security funding.

DeSantis has publicly urged Biden to reinstitute a Trump-era policy that forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending, and told Republicans to run on immigration during a rally in Wisconsin on Sunday.

That appears to be the plan. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's GOP agenda published Wednesday, called the "Commitment to America," prominently proposed stricter immigration measures including a requirement to show legal residency in order to work.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, held a press conference Monday highlighting an NBC News poll that included findings about voters gravitating toward Republicans on the topic of immigration and border security.

DeSantis is up for reelection in Florida and it's not yet clear what effect his Martha's Vineyard actions will have on his campaign. On Wednesday, Democratic gubernatorial challenger Charlie Crist accused DeSantis of trying to "draw attention away" from Florida's 15-week abortion ban, which doesn't include exemptions for rape or incest.

"His inhumanity is now comparable to his inhumanity and lack of respect for women," Crist said.

As for the future of the White House, DeSantis's migrant trafficking lawsuit would be unlikely to do any lasting damage to the party or DeSantis' suspected presidential ambitions because 2024 is still very far off, predicted Jeff Grappone, a GOP strategist at political consulting firm Rokk Solutions.

"We're not even to the opening gate of the 2024 race yet," Grappone told Insider. "When the universe of candidates is known, we'll have a better sense of how particular issues will impact Republican fortunes in 2024."

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