Ron DeSantis’s presidential bid is facing extraordinary turmoil approximately six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, with internal disputes erupting into public view as Republicans increasingly pin their hopes of stopping Donald Trump on a rival contender.
The CEO of the super PAC running much of DeSantis’s operation quit last week as allies took the unusual step of starting another super PAC late in the race. The vast political network led by Charles Koch — once drawn to DeSantis — endorsed Nikki Haley as it looks to stop Trump, promising the support of its ready-made field program. Some senior campaign aides are increasingly gloomy about their chances, according to a person close to DeSantis. “People increasingly think it’s over. It’s a dumpster fire,” said the person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The fresh blows come at a critical time in the GOP primary, with Trump dominant in national and early state polls and a growing sense that he may be unstoppable. DeSantis entered the race with high expectations and formidable resources. But his struggles as a candidate — including his strained small talk, sometimes awkward smiles and perceived aloofness — have drawn widespread attention. And his theory of how to beat Trump — by appealing squarely to his supporters — has run up against enduring GOP enthusiasm for the former president, amplified by Trump’s indictments. Voters ready to move on from Trump have increasingly found Haley more compelling.
While some DeSantis allies are pessimistic, there’s precedent for dramatic shifts late in presidential primaries, leaving room for recovery. DeSantis’s team argues that only he can peel away enough Trump supporters to compete, and often point out that the former president is spending against DeSantis rather than Haley. DeSantis has focused intensively on Iowa, where he is about to hit all 99 counties and has high-profile surrogates, including Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.
“Team DeSantis leadership is not only optimistic about our pathway but we are incredibly excited to take this effort to the next stage over the final 47 days,” said DeSantis deputy campaign manager David Polyansky. “The Trump and Haley campaigns better buckle up for the ride ahead.”
DeSantis’s campaign has been attacking Haley as insufficiently conservative and dismissed the Koch network endorsement just before it was announced on Tuesday, declaring that “the pro-open borders, pro-jail break bill establishment is lining up behind a moderate,” a disparaging reference to the network’s positions on immigration and criminal justice matters.
But DeSantis and his team were stung by the loss, according to people in touch with them, and had cultivated a relationship with the network and its flagship group, Americans for Prosperity, despite DeSantis’s differences on some policy issues. An AFP polling memo explaining its endorsement read like a rebuttal to many of the DeSantis team’s arguments, pushing back on the idea that most of DeSantis’s early state supporters would flock to Trump if he were not in the race.
DeSantis has been tapping into the Christian, social-conservative networks that have powered past caucus winners. Mark Doss, who attended Vander Plaats’s Family Leader forum in November, said he was leaning toward DeSantis after people he respects, including pastor friends, put in a good word. “And I do have a high regard for Governor Reynolds,” said Doss, the ministry director of GoServ Global, an Iowa-based Christian humanitarian group.
Some of DeSantis’s vocal backers doubt that his endorsements will move the needle, however, and his challenges were hard to escape even at a November rally announcing Reynolds’s support, where some attendees effectively shrugged when asked if it mattered to them.
With time to change DeSantis’s fortunes dwindling, the governor’s allies are fighting with one another. DeSantis and some of his advisers have criticized Never Back Down, the primary super PAC supporting him, according to several people familiar with the comments. Never Back Down officials have expressed their own concerns: CEO Chris Jankowski quit last week while saying his job had become untenable and alluding to problems “well beyond a difference of strategic opinion.”
Jankowksi left shortly after close DeSantis allies set up a new super PAC and nonprofit called Fight Right, which last week began running ads attacking Haley for her comments on Hillary Clinton. There were initial concerns raised about the legal independence of the new group and whether the transfer of money from NBD followed legal compliance. Ken Cuccinelli, an NBD board member and former attorney general of Virginia, wrote in an email first reported by NBC News that he found the funding of some of the ads against Haley to be “exceedingly objectionable” and asked for his concerns to be preserved in records of the board.
Some DeSantis allies say there were concerns that Never Back Down is so closely associated with the governor that its negative ads hurt him. But the campaign is now publicly embracing Fight Right, and many view the group as an effort to put ad money under new control.
Andrew Romeo, a DeSantis campaign spokesman, said in a statement that any assertion that “the campaign has anything to do with the strategy being pursued by an outside entity is absurd and categorically false.”
DeSantis was in Palm Beach this week courting donors for the new entity — a practice allowed under campaign finance laws even as there are legal limits on strategic coordination.
A Monday memo from DeSantis’s campaign manager, James Uthmeier, said Fight Right’s “television team” would complement Never Back Down’s “ground game” — making no mention of the fact that Never Back Down has booked more advertising this election cycle than any other campaign or supporting group. He also wrote that Fight Right “features minimal overhead” and said “100% of contributions go direct to TV ads” — appearing to allude to some donors’ gripes that other money hasn’t been well spent. Never Back Down has sought to demonstrate the ways it is keeping costs down.
Never Back Down was set up to work unusually closely with DeSantis, taking charge of outreach traditionally overseen by the candidate and pushing the boundaries of legal limits on super PACs’ ability to coordinate with candidates. Some DeSantis backers say his race has demonstrated the downsides of that super PAC model, with tensions magnified by an inability to communicate about many things.
Roy Bailey, a DeSantis fundraiser who once served as national finance co-chairman for Trump, brushed off disagreements in the news as the kind of conflict between “smart people all wanting to achieve the same thing” that “happen in corporate America all day long.” But he acknowledged complications from the super PAC’s role. “The organization that DeSantis has no control over, while doing great things on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, is the one that keeps making the news.”
One of DeSantis’s consistent hurdles has been his inability to persuade enough voters enthusiastic about Trump. Trump has used the four criminal indictments he faces as a rallying cry to build strong support among Republicans this year. And many Republicans have responded negatively to attempts to criticize him.
“What do you think about stimulus checks?” an old man in an American flag-patterned hat asked DeSantis one day in November, as the governor addressed a row of veterans in wheelchairs in Marshalltown, Iowa.
It was the perfect opportunity for DeSantis to contrast his approach with Trump’s, and he launched into standard GOP criticisms of pandemic-era government spending that contributed to inflation.
“They printed and borrowed trillions of dollars, starting in March of 2020, both Republicans and Democrats, both Trump and Biden —” DeSantis said.
“Trump started that,” the man echoed.
“Exactly,” DeSantis said.
But the man interrupted as DeSantis continued his explanation.
“I think he was helping the country by doing that,” he said of Trump.
Still, longtime Iowa operative Dave Kochel said there is still time for the evangelical voters who dominate the GOP caucuses to repeat history and give DeSantis a late boost.
“You can’t do more than he’s done, between the super PAC, between his own candidate schedule, going to all 99 counties, getting the governor and getting Vander Plaats,” he said, referencing the endorsement of an evangelical leader known for backing past Iowa caucus winners in the final stretch.
But Trump also has broad support from evangelical voters, and Haley is the one gaining ground in the polls, operatives noted. The endorsement from Americans for Prosperity, the flagship group of the Koch network, also provides Haley with more infrastructure in Iowa and beyond to address one of her challenges — a ground game that’s thinner than DeSantis’s. With Haley pulling even with DeSantis in Iowa and claiming a clear second in surveys of New Hampshire and South Carolina, her supporters say she’s the only Trump alternative with their eggs in multiple baskets.
“The Governor has received the support of Iowa’s popular Governor Kim Reynolds, evangelical leaders like Bob Vander Plaats, will hit all 99 counties across the state, and has our historic and unmatched caucus operation and grassroots efforts behind him to win on caucus night,” said Erin Perrine, communications director for Never Back Down. “Instead of regurgitating the consultant class talking points, The Post should get back to reporting,” she added.
DeSantis’s team has started to argue that Haley’s amped-up investments in Iowa, including large ad buys, raise the stakes of her performance there. An adviser also contended he is contrasting more forcefully with Trump at this point than the former U.N. ambassador.
DeSantis backers agree: He needs to distinguish himself in Iowa.
Said one DeSantis donor who still thinks the governor is Trump’s best challenger: “The best thing he’s got going for him is the expectations for him are so low.”