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Democrats Don’t Want DeSantis’ Migrant Stunt to Decide the Midterms

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

During then-President Donald Trump’s single term, he envisioned a spiteful shifting of migrants into Democratic strongholds. He even threatened to order the Department of Homeland Security to sift through the thousands of newcomers seeking asylum in the hopes of finding the supposed hardened criminals and dispatching them to places like New York and California with the goal of overrunning already stretched systems. If he were going to stage a stunt meant for headlines, he needed to break through all of his self-made crises that were already crowding Page One from coast to coast.
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Trump’s latest scheme ended up in the lap of Miles Taylor, who was then the top political hand at the Department of Homeland Security. Taylor recounted in a recent MSNBC interview how he walked down the hall to his army of lawyers for a way out. “We went to our general counsel’s office to find every way to go tell them that was illegal. We got enough options to go back to the White House,” recalled Talyor, who resigned as the Department of Homeland Security’s chief of staff and emerged as one of the most credible converts to NeverTrumpism. “I’ve put all of the senior staff on an email and said, ‘This is illegal. Now, tell me you want to do it.’ And there was crickets on the chain.”

Now, Taylor isn’t a lawyer. But if the former top aide at DHS saw the ploy as illegal, then surely some lawyers who specialize in such matters—and populate a ton of offices on Capitol Hill and throughout the executive branch—can find a way to stop the narrower version of this Trump’s scheme, being carried out now by Republican governors looking to make a national splash for themselves, right?

Of course, but despite a faint sputter here and a performative protest there, Democrats are approaching the stunt of relocating migrants in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass, with the awareness that it is, in fact, a stunt. Yes, there are real victims here, but no one so far is rushing this to get this on the congressional hearing schedule, a move that they know Ron DeSantis and the other Republican governors behind this plot would milk for all their worth.

The quick backstory, which was this column’s topic on Friday: DeSantis’ allies allegedly recruited migrants amassed in Texas, convinced them to board planes on the promise of jobs, housing, and financial help, and dropped them in the unsuspecting island communities of Martha’s Vineyard. The fliers they were reading promised “8 months cash assistance,” help finding housing and schools for kids, transportation to job interviews, job training, and jobs themselves, and many other benefits. None, of course, were in the offing for migrants at this stage of their process of seeking asylum. (Popular.Info first obtained the documents, which look like crude government trifold fliers.)

The topline move is similar to what fellow Republican governors’ have been doing in recent months with thousands of migrants awaiting adjudication of asylum cases, an effort to jam liberal enclaves in California, New York, and Washington, D.C. All three governors—DeSantis, Doug Ducey of Arizona, and Greg Abbott of Texas—have presidential ambitions and are betting the meanspirited exploitation of scared migrants helps their hand, particularly if Trump chooses to run again. After all, they have all accomplished the splashy export of fellow humans that eluded Trump at the hands of his minders.

The Massachusetts delegation is asking the Treasury Department to investigate the money behind it. An elected sheriff in Texas has opened an investigation into DeSantis, making him the second potential 2024 Republican candidate facing a criminal probe. The White House even had a meeting about the migrant busing scheme on Friday. But, with Democrats heading into the final 50 days of this election with a syndicated narrative they view as a winner, many are approaching these potential human rights violations cautiously, because they are wary of anything that might muddle their carefully honed messaging.

Then there’s this crass reality: DeSantis’ stunt, despite the outrage it is drawing, might do far more for Republicans’ fortunes than Democrats. It seems counter to Americans’ better angels, but it should be clear by now that this isn’t an era where many leaders should be eager to meet Saint Peter.

Polling—however imperfect as it might be right now—shows voters not as focused on immigration as Republicans may hope. “Threats to democracy”—aka the Big Lie, election fraud, Jan. 6, and Trump’s alleged absconding of classified materials—again topped the list as the single biggest issue facing voters this fall in this month’s NBC poll, with 20% citing the future of the American experiment as their driving worry. The cost of living and the economy were basically tied at issues two and three, while immigration ranked a distant fourth for 12% of voters—virtually unchanged from a month prior. Abortion trailed back at 8%, tied with climate change and statistically parked in the same space as separate questions about crime and guns.

Since October of last year in that poll, Republicans’ advantage on the border has risen 9 percentage points, with 56% of all voters giving the GOP higher marks than Democrats and leaping ahead of them by 36 percentage points. On the broader topic of immigration, Republicans enjoy a 17-percentage-point leg-up on Democrats, a jump from a year ago when they already savored a 9-point gap between the parties. And Republicans have held steady in their almost-20-point lead on the economy.

For their part, Democrats have their own baked-in advantages—albeit smaller ones. They’ve more than doubled their lead on the question of “dealing with the issue of abortion,” in the NBC phrasing; Democrats have moved from a net 10-point advantage a year ago to a 22-point lead now. And the country shows no sign of learning to love a post-Roe world, according to the polls that shows opposition steady at 2-to-1 against.

A quick exercise, now that these numbers are front of mind: if you’re a Democratic strategist, do you trade abortion—an issue animating suburban women like none other—for immigration, which is similarly a second-tier issue, but one where the party starts at an obvious disadvantage? And if you’re a Republican, what can you do to move Trumpist rhetoric about the 2020 election off the front page just as the GOP faces a one-two punch of Jan. 6 hearings resuming and Trump’s legal problems over document security?

Still, as much of liberal Twitter’s pundits clutched their kerchiefs and pearls and gnashed about how terrible DeSantis is, they’re missing the point. So, too, are Republicans who think the swingy exurban communities will cheer a stunt that moved 50 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts. The “threats to democracy” message seems durable, and Democrats have the advantage of setting the tone for the debate as Trump himself remains on the defensive in many different jurisdictions—not the least of which is Congress. Republicans might be able to win a majority in the House and maybe even the Senate as voters already have their ears open to an economic message.

Migrants and the border? Those, unfortunately, are secondary issues for a lot of Americans who just want to see government work again, are weary of yet more stunts, and are about to be reminded again why the final push to Election Day is often the most uncomfortable—if revealing—stretch of our national therapy sessions. Elections hold a mirror up to societies, and often are not flattering. Just look at why DeSantis sees his flight plans as roadmaps to the White House and why Democrats aren’t ready to meet him on the tarmac.

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