By Gram Slattery
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A staff shake-up by 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is unlikely to presage a major strategy shift, according to several people close to the campaign, despite increasing pressure from some top donors to dramatically change course due to a slump in the polls.
DeSantis’ camp on Tuesday announced that it was ousting campaign manager Generra Peck and bringing in two top outside strategists. Replacing Peck, who is now the campaign’s chief strategist, is James Uthmeier, previously the governor’s chief of staff.
Those changes followed a staffing shakeup in July, when some 38 positions were slashed amid concerns about high spending on payroll. DeSantis promised a leaner operation and a sharper focus on smaller gatherings to enable him to connect better with voters.
Some donors — who campaigns need to stay afloat financially — have called on the governor to make a sharper course correction and adopt more moderate positions on divisive social issues such as abortion.
The Florida governor has been losing ground to former President Donald Trump, who holds a 34-point lead in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Campaign insiders and donors say the replacement of Peck is unlikely to quell anxiety about the direction of DeSantis’ campaign.
Peck’s removal came four days after Robert Bigelow, the biggest individual donor to a group supporting the DeSantis candidacy, told Reuters he would not give more money unless the governor changes his approach because “extremism isn’t going to get you elected.”
Bigelow took particular issue with a six-week abortion ban that DeSantis signed this spring. The governor has also faced backlash for new Florida teaching standards that require public school students to be taught in Black history lessons that some slaves developed skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Uthmeier, a staunch conservative with no experience in national electoral politics, was chosen mainly due to his acumen as a manager rather than a strategist, according to two sources close to the campaign.
One major donor called the move a “sideshow,” while a third called it principally “organizational” rather than a matter of strategy.
“No one would accuse James of being a moderate,” said one associate of Uthmeier, who requested anonymity to speak frankly.
That person acknowledged the campaign was fielding calls from donors who were advocating a shift to the middle, though the campaign was holding firm, saying their positions were consistent with those of the Republican primary electorate.
Some donors argue that DeSantis is alienating potential voters by advocating positions that are mostly attractive to the right wing of the Republican Party, which Trump already has an iron grip on.
NEW CAMPAIGN MANAGER, SAME STRATEGY
Uthmeier’s appointment had been in the works for weeks, said one person close to the process. Shortly before a donor retreat in Utah in July, during which some donors asked pointed questions about the direction of the campaign, Uthmeier had been tasked by the governor with reviewing the campaign’s books and giving DeSantis his evaluation of the operation, that person said.
Uthmeier, who was DeSantis’ legal counsel before he was chief of staff, has no experience with electoral politics, though he is widely seen as an effective manager.
“With him, the governor has basically imposed his will in Tallahassee,” said another person close to Uthmeier, referring to Florida’s capital city. “Can he accomplish the same goals when it comes to national politics? That’s to be determined right now.”
Joining Uthmeier as a deputy campaign manager will be David Polyansky, a seasoned political operative with deep knowledge of early nominating state of Iowa, who was previously with Never Back Down, the main outside spending group supporting DeSantis.
Marc Reichelderfer, a Tallahassee-based political operative will also take a major strategic position within the campaign, the first person said, though his title was not immediately clear.
Uthmeier is expected to lean heavily on those two people for strategic advice, the first person added.
Top donors are expected to receive a briefing on Thursday going over the most recent changes, according to that person and a donor.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery, editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)