Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s migrant trafficking operation has proven to be just the latest in a laundry list of outrageous behavior. Throughout the last two years, the authoritarian, performance-artist governor has centralized power in his own hands while echoing Donald Trump’s MAGA rhetoric and dividing Floridians on a daily basis. But this time, DeSantis and the Republican Party are already facing blowback for his actions.
This week, more details have come to light about how DeSantis and his on-the-ground operatives lured mostly Venezuelan migrants onto an airplane in San Antonio, Texas, before sending them to and leaving them in Martha’s Vineyard. (San Antonio and Martha’s Vineyard are, of course, both outside the governor’s jurisdiction.) Migrants were reportedly lured onto the plane bound for Martha’s Vineyard by a mysterious tall blonde woman going by “Perla.” Migrants were also handed brochures discussing resettlement benefits available to refugees, including housing, money, and jobs. The shadiness of this entire operation has created a storm for DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate who is also seeking reelection as governor this November.
Speculation about who exactly Perla is has run rampant the last few days in Florida political circles. One theory circulating on social media is that Governor DeSantis’s former communications director, Christina Pushaw, was Perla, but that appears to be far-fetched. However, given the large number of MAGA-styled agitators who have gravitated to DeSantis in the last few years, limitless possibilities exist as to who could have been recruited to undertake such a dirty and potentially illegal role.
The operation also highlighted the fact that for many in the GOP, the law around asylum-seekers is not very important. Most of the migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard were asylum-seekers or plan to be. But the assistance brochures given to them were for refugees, a distinction that the migrants likely did not know and that DeSantis certainly should have. This misleading of migrants is potentially criminal.
In a Republican Party that is programmed by Federalist Society–styled originalist autocrats, DeSantis’s work in Florida stands out as a model. The governor’s open contempt for political or legal precedents is often met with an arrogant moral certainty about both the legality and ethics of his decisions. But in the case of the Martha’s Vineyard migrant trafficking operation, this arrogance and moral certainty may have finally tripped up DeSantis.
Democrats in Florida have nominated former GOP Governor Charlie Crist as DeSantis’s challenger for this November’s election. Crist was a high-profile party-switcher during the Obama presidency and most recently served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House from a St. Petersburg-based congressional district that was altered significantly by redistricting this spring. Crist’s former district is one of many targeted by DeSantis and the Republican-controlled legislature, which redrew districts to ensure as many GOP-leaning seats as possible. (Crist’s district was formerly Democratic-leaning.)
Crist, who has been struggling with fundraising this entire campaign, has suddenly seen his fortunes improve. He raised $1 million in the 48 hours after news broke of DeSantis’s migrant-relocation stunt. Additionally, Crist’s support appears to be broadening, not only from rank-and-file Floridians but also from former asylum-seekers from left-wing dictatorships who are reassessing their own prior support for DeSantis.
It’s critical to note that Venezuelan émigrés make a big difference in local elections in Florida, including in DeSantis’s own close-shave 2018 victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum. This community has been leaning heavily toward the GOP since 2016, giving increasing support to Republican candidates in both the 2018 and 2020 elections. Now many in that community are questioning their support for the Republicans.
For example, prominent Spanish-language talk radio host Roberto Rodríguez Tejera recently compared DeSantis to Fidel Castro. “Truly, this is criminal. They are using human beings to advance political points of view. This is what Fidel Castro did when he wanted to clean the Escambray. During the cleaning of the Escambray, they took peasants from one place and sent them to another by force,” he told his listeners on September 15.
“This disrupts 60 years of Republican rhetoric
about exiles from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela,” said Fernand Amandi, managing
partner of Bendixen and Amandi, one of the nation’s leading multilingual polling
and strategy firms. “For 60 years, we have heard Republicans say, ‘Come to
Florida, where you can be free,’ and now DeSantis’s actions tell a community who
came to Florida for freedom, future generations will now be deported from this
Senator Marco Rubio, who is facing an increasingly challenging reelection effort against Democratic nominee Congresswoman Val Demings, has clumsily attempted to sidestep conversation about DeSantis’s stunt by focusing on the “thousands of people [who] enter the country illegally.” But what Rubio won’t discuss is that these people were asylum-seekers, whose rights are protected by U.S. and international law. They were fleeing the sort of tyranny that Rubio has long criticized, the sort of tyranny that Rubio’s own family fled before settling in the United States, and which he brings up often. (Rubio’s own reelection campaign has become more competitive as he maintains his far-right views on abortion in a post-Roe world.)
For the next few weeks, as the storm churns, DeSantis will remain squarely on the back foot in terms of the growing Venezuelan exile community, a critical component of the GOP’s Florida electoral coalition. State Senator Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who is seeking to unseat first-term GOP Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, tried to amend DeSantis’s request for money to transport migrants to exempt those fleeing Communist or socialist countries. Her efforts were beaten back in the Republican-majority state Senate. Taddeo told Politico, “They (Republicans) know this is absolutely toxic in Miami-Dade County because it’s showing their true colors.” She added, “All this outrage about socialism and communism—it’s all fake.”
DeSantis’s stunt could further a shift among nonaffiliated voters toward Crist, a shift that began a few months ago as DeSantis’s heavy-handed autocratic behavior became more noticeable to larger segments of the electorate.
Demographic change in recent years has favored the Republicans. For the first time ever, party registration statistics favor the GOP in the state, aided in large part by those leaving blue states due to Covid-related policies. This has meant, despite a slipping approval rating, DeSantis has not yet been underwater in terms of head-to-head polling with Crist. In fact, most public polling still shows DeSantis leads, albeit by single digits.
Crist’s chance of victory, as well as that of Demings, hinges on a major backlash against Republicans among self-styled independent voters and Hispanics in Miami-Dade County, where the party has lost ground since 2016. DeSantis’s migrant policies could prove the spark that makes both races more competitive and stimulates important fundraising opportunities for both candidates. Or it could be just another notch in DeSantis’s belt as he powers toward seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.