The driving force behind Ron DeSantis’s presidential bid isn’t his official campaign but rather a well-funded outside group that’s handling crucial day-to-day activities — powered by a cadre of seasoned political advisers and a deep cash trove.
(Bloomberg) — The driving force behind Ron DeSantis’s presidential bid isn’t his official campaign but rather a well-funded outside group that’s handling crucial day-to-day activities — powered by a cadre of seasoned political advisers and a deep cash trove.
DeSantis’s super political action committee, Never Back Down, has carried out much of the work typically performed by a campaign, including devising his game plan in Iowa as well as deciding where he goes and who he meets, according to donors and allies. Days before the first Republican debate next week, a firm run by operatives advising the super PAC posted online hundreds of pages of strategy advice for DeSantis.
While traversing Iowa to meet with voters, the Florida governor routinely rides a bus emblazoned with “Never Back Down” and staffed by super PAC aides as his primary means of transport. Never Back Down staff — not campaign workers — organize and run many of his press events. Last week, Never Back Down announced a list of chairs for each of the state’s 99 counties “to help organize and mobilize” voters.
Political lawyers interviewed by Bloomberg News say that DeSantis’s reliance on the super PAC for such activities isn’t only unprecedented, it could run afoul of rules that require outside groups to act independently of candidates and refrain from coordinating directly with them.
“What they’re doing is offloading what is traditionally campaign activity to the super PAC,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel with the Federal Election Commission, referring to the DeSantis campaign. “To claim that it’s done without coordination is unbelievable.”
The super PAC’s top advisers include political veteran Jeff Roe, who engineered Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s defeat of Donald Trump in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. Among the documents posted by Roe’s firm, Axiom Strategies, this week were pages of advice on how to attack rivals in next week’s Republican primary debate, including former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, as well as analyses of how other Republican candidates are likely to attack DeSantis.
Those materials, first reported by the New York Times, were taken down. Yet their publication highlighted the ways super PACs can get around the ban on direct communication. The super PAC can’t talk with the campaign about strategy and research, but it’s free to publish the information online or direct others to do so.
Meanwhile, the campaign, which has been stacked with Tallahassee-based aides, recently replaced manager Generra Peck with Jeff Uthmeier, the governor’s chief of staff in Tallahassee, who has never run a presidential campaign. Other staff changes signal that Never Back Down’s influence over the campaign will continue to grow. Former top super PAC official David Polyansky — from Roe’s Axiom Strategies — recently was named deputy campaign manager.
Andrew Romeo, a DeSantis campaign spokesman, said the campaign was abiding by the rules. “We will continue to follow the law as we maximize our resources by accepting special guest invitations to bring Ron DeSantis’s message to reverse the decline of this country and lead our Great American Comeback to as many voters as possible.”
Super PAC spokeswoman Jess Szymanski cited the group’s door-knocking, event-hosting and participation in Republican events. “Never Back Down will continue doing everything we can within the law to help elect Governor Ron DeSantis our next president,” she said in a statement.
DeSantis’s dependence on his super PAC is the latest twist in campaign finance in the 13 years since a Supreme Court decision opened the door to unlimited fundraising and spending by outside groups.
Campaigns are limited to accepting up to $6,600 per donor, and contributions must be evenly split between primary and general election campaigns. By contrast, super PACs have been allowed under the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision to raise unlimited amounts of money that can be used for advertising, organizing voters, building donor lists and other activities.
Federal law bars campaigns and super PACs from coordinating their activities, though some limited contact is permissible. Candidates may attend fundraisers held by the committees or policy-focused nonprofits, but they can’t ask individuals to give more than $5,000.
It’s not so much that Never Back Down is doing things that other super PACs have never done, said a person familiar with its operations. Rather, it’s the scale of the operation, made possible by the $131 million bankroll it began with, the person said.
Never Back Down reported having almost $96.8 million cash on hand at the end of June, compared with $12.2 million in the campaign’s bank account, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Despite having more cash than any other candidate, DeSantis has struggled to gain ground in the polls. His operation has almost twice as much money on hand as frontrunner Trump, even as the former president continues to grow his lead. Trump is 39.9 percentage points ahead of DeSantis — the only other candidate polling in double digits — according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
Yet the bounds of the super PAC coordination rules have generally not been tested this much, Noble said. Because direct communication is against the rules, he said that DeSantis is effectively ceding authority over his campaign operations to people who don’t answer to him.
“I don’t know of any serious presidential campaign that does that,” Noble said.
Campaigns and super PACs have for years found ways to get around restrictions on coordination. Former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina’s 2016 campaign for president, for example, posted her events on a Google calendar accessible to anyone, including her super pac. It’s still online.
The FEC has investigated dozens of complaints that candidates of both parties have illegally coordinated with super PACs, but has yet to issue any penalties since super PACs came into existence following the 2010 Supreme Court ruling. The commission, which is divided evenly between three Republicans and three Democrats, has deadlocked on votes, resulting in no action.
Rosalyn Cooperman, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said there’s limited appetite for challenging the growing role of super PACs.
“Enforcement of the rules is going to be very permissive, because it’s one of those things where candidates want the freedom to be able to make those kinds of judgment calls,” Cooperman said.
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