Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told the Republican Party’s top donors last weekend he was considering transporting migrants to places like Martha’s Vineyard — just days before he secretly started the flights to the Massachusetts island.
The account was confirmed by a second person present for the speech. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose details of the private event.
DeSantis sent two planes full of migrants Wednesday to Martha’s Vineyard, a tony island enclave in Massachusetts, where several prominent Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, have homes. This followed similar efforts by the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona to offer migrants free bus rides to more liberal parts of the country.
Flying immigrants from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard is the latest move by DeSantis to seize the national spotlight and solidify his place among conservative supporters.
The 51-minute speech to the donor retreat gave a clear outline of how he might sell himself to Republican base voters during a potential 2024 presidential bid. The remarks were full of grievance and culture war pugilism, casting the nation’s political future as a battle against a conspiracy by leftists to impose their ideology and turn dissenters into “second-class citizens.” His message, according to the people in the room, was that America should become more like Florida — and that he would be a culture warrior.
“We’re not just arguing about tax rates. We’re not just arguing about normal policies. You know, we’re arguing about whether people that dissent from leftist ideology should have any voice in our government, in society at all,” DeSantis said, according to the people in the room. Of liberals, he said: “And they’ve been winning this fight for, I would say, the last five or ten years.”
DeSantis has built a massive political operation in recent months, raising more than $100 million as he zigzags the country to elite fundraisers. He is leading in his reelection race this year, and advisers want him to win by a large margin to send a signal to the national party, according to people familiar with the matter. He has repeatedly declined to rule out running against Trump, who has increasingly paid attention to DeSantis and his surge in the Republican primary polls, Trump advisers say.
DeSantis said in the speech that the point of sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and other enclaves was to send a political message, the people at the event said, and called similar efforts by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) “brilliant.”
“I think it’s been very effective,” he said of flooding liberal cities with migrants.
The Trump administration — led by immigration adviser Stephen Miller — originally floated such a plan but concerns within Immigration and Customs Enforcement led them to scuttle the idea, which drew considerable backlash at the time.
Much of the speech was spent on his response to the coronavirus, where he bragged that Florida had stayed open and favorably contrasted his response with most scientific experts. He bragged about not allowing “vaccine passports” and not mandating the use of the vaccine in Florida, though the state initially promoted vaccine distribution and ran advertisements encouraging people to take it. He also raised questions about the safety of coronavirus vaccines.
DeSantis did not joke with the crowd, or thank his hosts, or even wait for applause at times as the audience cheered him, according to multiple people familiar with the gathering. In a private roundtable with top donors, he mainly gave the same speech he gave to the larger group. He was at the retreat for about three hours. Several people familiar with the event said he received mixed reactions from donors, who liked his broader message but wished he would connect more personally.
Much of the speech seemed focused on national culture wars. He complained about statues of historical figures being taken down and attacked Disney for being too liberal over their feud with him over a Florida law restricting what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation, which has been nicknamed the “don’t say gay” law by critics.
“You know, sad to say, we’ve had a lot of Republican governors over the years who have caved to the corporate pressure,” DeSantis said. “Well, here I stand. I didn’t budge any. I stood for what was right.”
He stoked fears about voter fraud and attacked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for funding election administrators in 2020; Democratic billionaire donor George Soros for supporting more lenient prosecutors; and teachers who raise with young students the idea that gender is a choice. He criticized the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and the way race and racism is taught in many schools.
“We need to be focusing on teaching these young kids to read and write and add and subtract and not have ideology shoved down their throat,” he said.
He also warned the crowd that Democrats planned to change the structure of the governing system in the U.S. if they continued to hold power. He included, as he described, efforts by liberals to add justices to the Supreme Court, add congressional representation for the District of Columbia, replace the electoral college with a popular vote system and loosen voter identification laws. Most Democrats are not united behind those efforts and lack the votes to pass them in the current Congress.
“Unless you bend the knee to their leftist agenda, they want to make you a second-class citizen,” he said. “Unity for them is to take everybody in the majority that disagrees with them, make them second-class citizens, and then unify whatever is left standing.”
He said the only solution was to fight back, and to be ready to withstand criticism from both Democrats and the media.
“We have strapped on the full armor of God,” he said. “We are standing strong.”
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