DeSantis super PAC pauses voter canvassing in 4 states, sets high fundraising goals for next two quarters

DeSantis super PAC pauses voter canvassing in 4 states, sets high fundraising goals for next two quarters

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A super PAC backing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ presidential run has suspended its door knocking outreach in the early presidential primary state of Nevada, and three other Super-Tuesday states, including delegate-rich California. The adjustment by the PAC is a reminder of the outsized role it has played so far in DeSantis’ campaign, by handling tasks that are usually controlled by the presidential campaign itself.

Door-knocking ends in Nevada and some Super Tuesday states

The PAC, “Never Back Down,” says that the pause of these field operations, which involved up to 250 staffers and canvassers, will be implemented in Nevada, California, Texas and North Carolina. The PAC said its political staffers in those states will remain in place, and door knockers who were cut in recent weeks are being redirected to Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. The PAC’s cuts were first reported by NBC News.

“We see real opportunities in the first three. The first three are going to set the conditions for the March states,” PAC communications director Erin Perrine wrote in a statement. 

Perrine said recent efforts to alter the voting rules in Nevada and California benefit former President Donald Trump and decrease the effectiveness of the PAC’s investments in grassroots efforts. 

In California, the state Republican Party established new rules for a “winner-take-all” system if a candidate wins more than 50% of the primary vote, rather than awarding delegates for each congressional district a candidate wins. The change was backed by Trump’s campaign — and panned by DeSantis allies, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Perrine says this “eliminated the opportunity for grassroots campaigning.”

Asked in early August during a swing in New Hampshire about the California delegate changes, DeSantis said while he is “happy to do whatever the rules are,” there is “clearly…an effort with some of these state parties to bend it in one way.”

But a spokesperson for the California Republican party said it had little choice — the change was prompted by a Republican National Committee rule that they said if violated, California could lose half of its delegates to the 2024 convention.

“With 169 delegates, and an overwhelming vote of the California Republican Executive Committee on July 29th, 2023, voters will play a pivotal role in determining the Republican Presidential candidate on Super Tuesday,” said California GOP spokesperson Ashley Yanez.

In Nevada, the state Republican party is suing to keep its voting system a caucus and block a two-year-old law that requires it to hold a primary instead. Nevada has held a caucus for presidential primary contests for both parties since 1981. Its lawsuit is currently before the state supreme court.

Currently, Nevada election officials have a Feb. 6 primary-style election on the calendar. The state Republican Party said it will hold a caucus two days later, and GOP candidates who take part in the primary will be banned from the caucus or receiving the state’s delegates. 

Perrine called Nevada GOP Chair Michael McDonald a “Trump puppet executive director” who is conducting what she dismissively referred to as “a caucus/primary, primary/caucus routine.”

“When you have that kind of uncertainty about how the election’s going to be conducted, that becomes a pretty unstable environment to be investing the kind of resources that we’re investing,” Perrine said in a statement. 

McDonald, who was one of the “fake electors” who signed documents that falsely claimed Trump won Nevada in 2020, defended his party’s fight to keep a caucus and argued a caucus would be more effective for “voter integrity” due to its voter ID rules and lack of a mail vote option. 

“No one has had a problem with the direction we’re going,” McDonald said about other Republican presidential campaigns. “People that want to take the campaign seriously and actually want to interact, they’re obviously moving forward.” 

In a statement on whether they’d participate in the caucus or the primary process in Nevada, DeSantis campaign communications director Andrew Romeo said, “We’re exploring all options in Nevada to best position Ron DeSantis to be the next president.”

Never Back Down’s big, unprecedented role in DeSantis’ campaign

Campaign finance laws bar the group, “Never Back Down,” from directly coordinating with the DeSantis campaign. The PAC is not subject to donor contribution limits, while the campaign is.  Historically, super PACs have handled spending money on advertisements, while the campaign handles their fundraising, organizing events and field operations such as canvassing.

But since it was launched in early March, Never Back Down has taken an unusually outsized role in supporting DeSantis, more than has ever been seen in modern presidential campaign politics. 

Leading up to his launch, the super PAC raised money into a “draft committee” that was subject to federal limits and was transferred to DeSantis’ campaign. It has touted a $100 million investment in its nationwide canvassing program, which put an emphasis on the early presidential primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as the Super-Tuesday states. 

In Iowa, the PAC set up a “bootcamp” of door knockers in West Des Moines at the beginning of DeSantis’ campaign.  

After the DeSantis campaign burned through much of the cash it had raised in the first six weeks of his candidacy, the PAC led in organizing most of DeSantis’ tour of all 99 counties in Iowa. Under super PAC rules, a candidate may not coordinate with a super PAC, but may be “featured guests” and speak at its fundraisers, with some restrictions. During these bus tours, the PAC labels DeSantis as a “special guest” and transports him on a campaign bus joined by a motorcade of Florida or Iowa state law enforcement. 

Election 2024 DeSantis
FILE: Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign bus is driven down a highway after an event at Port Neal Welding, Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Salix, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall / AP


Never Back Down CEO Chris Jankowski wrote in a late July memo that with the DeSantis campaign’s adjustments and leaner approach, the PAC’s financial resources will have more impact in the race. 

“The PAC has all the money. They have an office by ours. But there’s no [DeSantis] campaign here, it’s just the PAC,” McDonald said, who said FEC rules prevent state parties from coordinating with super PACs. 

The DeSantis campaign says it talked to McDonald on Thursday, and McDonald said a DeSantis staffer told him “the PAC does not talk on behalf” of the governor or campaign.

How the PAC is handling its outsized role has led to some conflict with the campaign in the past. 

In the week before the first debate in Milwaukee, the PAC even issued a memo online that suggested how DeSantis should go after his opponents on the debate stage. DeSantis and his campaign looked to distance themselves from the strategies revealed in the memo, and the governor largely stayed away from attacks on his opponents at the first debate in Milwaukee. 

During a pre-debate lunch hosted by the PAC in Milwaukee, officials discussed internal polling for DeSantis and an analysis of the gap in the value of earned media — that is, news coverage — between him and Trump. The PAC also set a $50 million fundraising goal for the end of the year and $100 million by the end of March 2024, according to one lunch attendee.

CNN first reported about portions of audio leaked from the lunch where the fundraising goals were raised.

The PAC has been spending tens of millions on TV and digital ads, dropping $35 million on advertisements so far, according to AdImpact, an advertisement tracking firm. The PAC is also placing an ad buy starting at $25 million in Iowa and New Hampshire that starts Labor Day and could run past Halloween. 

The PAC, which has no limits on the money it can raise, brought in over $130.5 million since launching and spent about $34 million in its first couple of months, according to a mid-year campaign finance report released in late July. Never Back Down entered August with over $96 million cash on hand.

A bulk of that, $82.5 million, is from a transfer from DeSantis’ state political committee, which supported his gubernatorial campaigns. The Campaign Legal Center organization filed a complaint in May with the Federal Elections Commission over this transfer.

Never Back Down’s biggest single donor listed is hotel mogul Robert Bigelow, who has given $20 million but said in August he may not give more unless DeSantis shows he can appeal to moderate voters. 

A fundraising email sent Friday night by Trump’s campaign with the subject line “We scared off the Super PACs” alluded to Never Back Down’s to “shut down its operations” in Nevada and other states and said, “That Super PAC is nothing but a shadow campaign that skirts FEC laws to raise dark money with the sole mission of destroying our MAGA movement.”

Asked about the legal dividing line between the PAC and the campaign regarding the recent bus tours, Ken Cucinelli, founder of Never Back Down, argued the PAC may legally set up events and invite DeSantis as a “special guest” but his campaign can’t have any control over the arrangements.

“We set up a bus tour, proposed it to the campaign, and they either say yes or no. That’s why it’s legal. We stay completely out of coordinating,” Cucinelli told CBS News in late July. 

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