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Opinion DeSantis’s cruel stunt highlights the GOP’s hunger to change the subject

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 24. (Tristan Wheelock/Bloomberg News)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s cruel stunt of flying Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard — now under investigation by a sheriff in Texas and the subject of a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Boston — is widely seen as a play for Republican votes in a possible 2024 presidential run. But it is also part of an unusually intricate battle over which party will set the agenda for the 2022 election, and which side will be forced to play defense.

The fact that this messaging struggle is happening at all is a strategic victory for Democrats, even if they still have a lot of defending left to do. Midterm elections are typically about the party that controls the White House. This gives the opposition a big offensive advantage.

But even with inflation as a cudgel, it hasn’t been that easy for the GOP. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion, Donald Trump’s high profile in the news and the right-wing radicalism of many of the party’s candidates, Republicans are having to scramble far more than they expected to. The anti-Biden, anti-inflation message of so much of the GOP’s advertising is no longer enough. Democrats have found ways to be aggressive, even when they’re on defense.

So DeSantis’s cynical move was, as much as anything, an effort to push aside abortion rights, an issue central to the underdog campaign Democrat Charlie Crist is waging against him.

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This dynamic is playing out all over the country. Candidates who once spoke of their ardent opposition to abortion are now scrubbing their websites of references to the issue (“duck and cover” exercises, in the words of one Democratic strategist) and touting their own moderation on the issue.

One of the most transparent efforts to reset the campaign agenda: an ad from Republican Scott Jensen, a doctor and former state senator challenging Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Tim Walz. In April, Jensen said that if he were elected, “We’re going to ban abortions.” Not now. In the new spot, Jensen awkwardly holds his grandchild and declares:

“Abortion is divisive, and Tim Walz is weaponizing the issue. In Minnesota it’s a protected constitutional right and no governor can change that, and I’m not running to do that. I’m running because we need safe streets, excellent schools, parental rights and more money in the family budget. That’s what I’ll fight for. Let’s focus on the issues that matter.”

What matters most to voters is, of course, the point, and the GOP hopes they can paint Democrats as soft on criminality and insufficiently supportive of police officers. In fighting back, Democrats are playing offense even as they try to protect themselves.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) does exactly that against her opponent J.R. Majewski, who attended Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, rally.

Kaptur’s ad opens with still shots of Majewski near the Capitol. “That’s J.R. Majewski with his assault weapon,” a constituent who narrates the ad says. “He broke past the police barricades at the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. A hundred and forty police officers were injured, one died.”

She quickly pivots: “I’m concerned about crime; that’s why I support Marcy Kaptur. She helped put a hundred new police officers on our streets, and a new jail to hold violent criminals.”

The defensive work done, the ad returns to offense: “Look, reckless guys waving assault weapons don’t make our families safer. More police in our neighborhoods do. Marcy Kaptur gets it.”

If Republicans are determined to talk about crime, Democrats will try to shift the discussion to GOP opposition to widely popular restrictions on firearms. The power of the gun issue, Democratic pollster Joel Benenson told me, was reflected in a recent survey by his firm, which found that 61 percent of parents of schoolchildren are worried about a shooting at their kids’ schools.

There is, however, no getting away from the economy. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), who is in a tough race in a traditionally Republican state, wraps her jobs message in bipartisanship.

She opens one ad with a group of construction workers: “It’s 6 a.m., and up on this overpass these guys are already at it, starting early to beat the heat, staying late because that’s what it takes.” She then speaks of President Biden’s infrastructure bill, of working with “local officials, Republicans and Democrats on a plan to fix bridges and roads like this all over Kansas.”

“They work hard and work together,” she concludes. “Washington should, too.”

But sometimes, the counterpunch is straight to the chin. Democrat John Fetterman begins what, in theory, is a defense of his record on crime in the tough Pennsylvania town he led as mayor with these words about his opponent, Mehmet Oz: “Doc Oz in his Gucci loafers is attacking me on crime. Dr. Oz wouldn’t last two hours here in Braddock.”

Turning defense into offense can mean letting Gucci loafers talk for you.