Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently sent planes full of migrants to Martha's Vineyard, but his real target may have been 2024.
The timing of his recent political maneuver comes as Republicans need to motivate their voters to the polls in the midterms, after losing some ground to Democrats over the abortion issue, and also as DeSantis vaults past former President Donald Trump as the top GOP presidential candidate in Florida.
If DeSantis and Trump were both on the presidential ballot in Florida, DeSantis would win among Republican voters in the Sunshine State, according to the latest USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll. The poll showed an 8-point swing in the governor's favor since the previous one in January, though neither have declared their candidacy for a presidential run.
As DeSantis gets more media attention, increases his favorability among voters and leads on an immigration issue from which Trump launched a successful 2016 campaign, it may be setting up "a showdown" between the governor and former president, according to Charles Zelden, a historian and political science professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
"DeSantis is doing all of this out of state. It's not about the governor's race. It's almost entirely about 2024," he said.
DeSantis, Trump and immigration
Just as Trump has been a kingmaker in Republican primaries this year, he also helped DeSantis climb the political ladder. Trump endorsed DeSantis in 2018, ushering him to the nomination over the more well-known and well-funded Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, an establishment favorite. DeSantis then narrowly defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in the general election.
But now the teacher could be bested by the student.
Trump has been the face of the Republican Party and owned immigration and border security since he descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 to announce his candidacy for president and accused Mexico of sending "rapists" to the U.S.
Now, DeSantis is becoming a hero in the party for sending two planes full of Venezuelan migrants on Sept. 14 to Martha's Vineyard, a posh vacation destination in Massachusetts frequented by Democrats, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
"There may be more flights. There may be buses," the governor said during a news conference Friday in Daytona Beach, Florida.
His words were met with cheers in Florida, where DeSantis has a lot of support and signals to analysts his migrant moves are less about 2022 and more about 2024.
"The migrant move is not something we would see if it was solely about facing voters in Florida," said Sean Freeder, assistant political science professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. "Given that Florida has a high Venezuelan population, if anything, this is drawing unnecessary attention."
Trump won Florida partially because of his support among Miami Cubans, and the Hispanic vote is always important in Florida. If DeSantis was worried about Florida, he wouldn't be making these moves, Freeder said.
"I read this as DeSantis sees the polls that show him up 6 to 9 points against (former Gov. Charlie) Crist, and thinks he's got the money advantage and his polls look good. He's on track to being reelected and he's using this time to make a national name," he said. "He's out-Trumping Trump."
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How DeSantis pulled ahead, Trump fell behind
When Trump was president, he talked about transporting migrants from red states to blue states.
"DeSantis is actually doing it," Freeder said. "While Trump continues his litigation of 2020, DeSantis is getting stuff done."
That contrast is helping DeSantis pull ahead and causing Trump to fall behind, he said.
DeSantis is coming off a big legislative run, in which he took on Disney, "wokeism" and became a champion for conservative parents who wanted more of a say in school curriculum.
Meanwhile, Trump has been embroiled in multiple legal fights.
Though many Florida Republicans are not likely to be swayed against Trump because of the Mar-a-Lago search, they do see him as someone with a lot of "political baggage," Freeder said.
DeSantis has probably become the favorite because he seems like a winner, he said.
"It just goes to show Trump is vulnerable with all of his legal problems," Zelden said. "And we don't know for sure if DeSantis is running for president, but he's sure acting like it."
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Immigration and 2024
DeSantis isn't just sticking to Florida, Texas and red states. He's been campaigning for Republicans in battleground states.
Recently, he stopped in Pennsylvania to stump for Doug Mastriano, a Trump-backed candidate for governor.
But DeSantis spent most of his Aug. 19 speech in Pittsburgh touting his own accomplishments, including how he fought against federal COVID guidelines.
"You ain't running over this governor. I'm punching back," he said.
The stop was another example of DeSantis reaching out to a national Republican audience, according to Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Millersville University who has decades of experience polling Pennsylvania voters.
"This is not about the Florida election. It's about the presidential election," he said.
And Madonna thinks immigration is rising in terms of its significance and could be one of the top three or four issues in the 2024 election - though he's careful to note political winds can always change quickly.
The border situation is more intense today than it was when Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by 40,000 votes with his rally promises of "the wall."
So far this year, a record 2 million migrants have crossed the U.S. border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"The salience of this issue will be a lot greater in 2024 if Congress and President Biden don't deal with it nationally," Madonna said.
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Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sending migrants up north could aid DeSantis in 2024 against Trump