It’s been a tough stretch for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ putative presidential campaign, as chief rival Donald Trump racks up endorsements in the governor’s backyard and hammers him on the airwaves.
But DeSantis has one big advantage heading into his likely White House bid: A heap of donor cash.
As he prepares to enter the presidential race in the coming weeks, DeSantis sits atop accounts poised to support his candidacy that total more than $110 million, according to public filings and people who represent the entities.
And that’s all without him opening an official campaign committee account.
DeSantis’ financial advantage looms over the Republican field: Most contenders have cash balances on orders of magnitude lower than his. It far outpaces lower-polling contenders like the pair of South Carolinians, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. Even the super PAC backing Trump, MAGA Inc., reported $55 million on hand as of the end of 2022 — a hefty sum, but far short of what’s in the bank for DeSantis. The former president has also raised $18 million through his campaign since launching in November.
What’s more, DeSantis has the advantage of his platform as governor of Florida. Just this week, he sought to burnish his foreign policy chops on a trip to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom funded by the state’s economic development arm, which relies on both public and private money. The governor’s team said taxpayers did not foot the bill.
“If DeSantis gets in, he’s going to have a huge amount of momentum and I think the donor class and the [fund]raiser class are going to be with him,” supporter Roy Bailey, a Texas fundraiser who helped lead Trump’s prior presidential fundraising efforts, said in an interview with POLITICO on Wednesday.
“The people I speak to are either major donors or major raisers. For a time now, it has been very clear to me from my conversations around the country with those people that they are hoping DeSantis gets in the race and I think their money will follow,” Bailey added.
Bailey declined to detail why he switched allegiances, simply calling DeSantis “what our country needs right now.”
DeSantis’ state reelection account, Friends of Ron DeSantis, has more than $80 million left over since he won in a landslide last November, including $14 million that came in during the first three months of this year. That money can be transferred into a federal PAC — a move that could invite formal complaints from his opponents.
Never Back Down, a super PAC formed by former Trump White House official Ken Cuccinelli, has reportedly raised $33 million. (A filing will not be available until July, but a representative for the group — granted anonymity to share details that are not publicly available yet — confirmed reporting of its sum.) And a smattering of smaller groups have formed to support a possible DeSantis candidacy. The Republican Party of Florida, over which DeSantis has significant sway, shifted $3 million to his campaign in February and continues to post impressive fundraising numbers.
Despite his financial edge, DeSantis has been stymied by Trump in other ways.
The former president and current Republican frontrunner is snapping up endorsements from Florida Republicans and this week received the backing of former Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New Yorker who had been heaping praise on DeSantis for months. Some supporters and donors have begun to express concern about his strength after he articulated controversial positions on abortion and the war in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, a tidal wave of money is already crashing on DeSantis’ shore.
Robert Bigelow, a real estate magnate with a keen interest in the afterlife, has donated $10 million to DeSantis’ gubernatorial account and recently identified himself to TIME Magazine as Never Back Down’s largest donor. Wall Street billionaire Jeff Yass, an early investor in TikTok, contributed $2.6 million to the state campaign in February — three months after DeSantis won reelection.
Several other big donors followed that pattern, an indication they support DeSantis’ ambitions. Joe Ricketts, former CEO of TD Ameritrade, donated $1 million to the gubernatorial account in February as well.
Bigelow, Yass and Ricketts did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokesperson for DeSantis.
While money matters, well-funded campaigns have fallen apart in the past.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush serves as one cautionary tale after entering the 2016 Republican primary with $100 million in super PAC funding but not a single primary state win. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg spent $1 billion of his own fortune on a White House bid in 2020, only to drop out three months later after failing to secure any victories beyond American Samoa.
For DeSantis, shifting his political fortune comes with some risk.
Federal law bars a transfer from his state account to a presidential campaign, and presidential candidates are generally prohibited from raising money through state accounts.
But moving money into a PAC that supports him is unlikely to trigger legal consequences if DeSantis follows a series of convoluted steps including giving up control of the state account before the transfer happens, according to two election lawyers.
They said the move raised concerns but pointed to precedent from Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican who resigned from a state committee that then moved more than $100,000 into a super PAC boosting his Congressional run in 2020. The Federal Election Commission was deadlocked when adjudicating a complaint against Donalds, effectively sanctioning the move.
“There’s no indication that the FEC would take a different approach and apply the law differently simply because we’re talking about more money,” said Erin Chlopak, senior director for campaign finance at the Campaign Legal Center, which had filed a complaint against the Donalds committee.
The FEC also moves so slowly that if DeSantis were to elicit a complaint, it likely would not be resolved until after the 2024 election, said Brendan Fischer, a longtime campaign finance lawyer and deputy executive director at the nonprofit Documented.
Never Back Down has been raising money for a draft account that would funnel funds to an eventual DeSantis campaign, but contributions to that entity would be capped at $3,300 per donor for the primary. The PAC’s representative would not say whether it has shifted any money to the “Draft DeSantis 2024” effort, and would not disclose the number of people who donated to Never Back Down.
“There is only one Republican who can beat Joe Biden. It’s Ron DeSantis,” Erin Perrine, communications director for Never Back Down, said in a statement. Perrine was referring to polling that shows DeSantis in a stronger position than Trump to defeat Biden despite trailing Trump in most primary matchups. “America needs bold, conservative leadership unafraid to stand up to the woke left, defend families, and never back down from the hard fights our country faces. Ron DeSantis is that leader.”
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