Has Ron DeSantis Won Republicans the Midterms?

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis may have shaken up the midterm elections with his controversial decision to send two planes carrying undocumented migrants to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

DeSantis was widely criticized for what some described as a stunt, including President Joe Biden, but many Republicans and conservatives praised the GOP governor.

His move may have pushed immigration to the top of news agenda but it remains to be seen how big an impact it will have on the midterm elections, where Republicans are hoping to take control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as performing well in state-level elections.

DeSantis, who is seeking re-election this year, is now facing a class action suit from the migrants who allege they were misled by false promises of employment opportunities and benefits, while a sheriff in San Antonio, Texas has opened an investigation into the matter as the migrants were transported from his county—Bexar County—to Florida and onward to Martha's Vineyard.

Political experts who spoke to Newsweek suggested that the migrant flights would play well with Republican voters and could boost DeSantis' chances in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries, but their impact on the midterms could be limited.

Ron DeSantis Speaks in Tampa
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit at the Tampa Convention Center on July 22, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. DeSantis' recent migrant flights may have a limited impact on midterm elections. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

An 'Open Border'

DeSantis is not alone in sending migrants to parts of the country perceived as "blue." Texas' Republican Governor Greg Abbott has bused migrants to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago.

"DeSantis' bold move, along with Governor Abbott of Texas, of shipping asylum seekers to various northern locations has some important upsides for Republicans," said Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.

"It highlights the fact that a few border states have been bearing most of the burden of taking care of asylum seekers and coping with undocumented immigrants, as a result of national, and recently Biden administration, policies. It reinforces Republican attacks on Biden as promoting, in effect, an 'open border,'" Quirk told Newsweek.

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek: "The crisis at the Southern border is a political liability for Biden—and, by extension, the Democratic Party. DeSantis' exploiting of that weakness may have its detractors, but it's hard to argue Republicans don't come out ahead politically."

A Republican Hero

DeSantis' sending of migrants to Massachusetts is likely to boost his standing among Republicans amid ongoing speculation that he will seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, according to Mark Shanahan, an associate professor at the University of Surrey in the U.K. and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage.

"Ron DeSantis' populist action in paying to send Venezuelan migrants to Martha's Vineyard may have cemented his hero status in deep red states and added further scaffolding to his 2024 run at the presidency, but any positivity he and the Republican party may gain from the stunt is likely to be very short-lived," Shanahan told Newsweek.

He pointed to lawsuits and investigations into the migrant flights, arguing that it is possible they may have violated the law. Some Democrats have called on the Department of Justice to investigate the matter, including California Governor Gavin Newsom.

"DeSantis' simplistic approach to the immigration issue may have won more than a media cycle of headlines, but when the dust settles and the lawsuits emerge, it may carry fewer votes than the GOP would hope," Shanahan said.

Activating the Base

The effect on the outcome of this year's midterm elections may be limited but DeSantis appears to have met his goal: energizing GOP voters.

"Regardless of the blowback it's received among Democrats and elite media, the move has achieved its goal: activating the Republican base, forcing the Biden administration into a corner, and cementing DeSantis's own reputation as the ultimate culture warrior willing to stop at nothing to make a point," Thomas Gift told Newsweek.

"Immigration still won't be the top issue facing voters in November but DeSantis has given Republicans another issue to talk about at a time when Democrats have been gaining momentum in key midterm races across the country," he said.

Looking at 2024

David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, told Newsweek he doubted the migrant flights would "substantially alter the playing field" for the midterms but could impact 2024.

"There is no real upside to the GOP in 2022 because it was directed not at the voters the party needs to win the midterms but at the primary voters DeSantis needs to win the 2024 nomination," Bateman said.

"The GOP would like to raise the salience of undocumented immigration and construct a narrative of a crisis at the border. That's easy to do, because there is clearly growing media awareness of the increased number of undocumented crossings," he said.

Bateman said that DeSantis "might have helped raise the salience of the issue, but he did so in a counter-productive way, shifting the focus away from the Biden administration's policies and towards his own totalitarian instincts."

He argued that "the real goal was not 2022" but DeSantis' ambitions for the next presidential cycle.

"And so from his perspective, even if it ends up hurting the GOP in 2022, it will be well worth it for his own selfish goals of winning in 2024," Bateman said.