DeSantis Campaign in Turmoil Ahead of Republican Primary Voting

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(Bloomberg) -- Ron DeSantis closest allies are taking greater control over the daily operations of his presidential run, another shakeup in the Florida governor’s 2024 bid just weeks before the first Republican nominating contest.

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Scott Wagner, one of DeSantis’ oldest friends from their time at Yale and a lawyer in Miami, assumed leadership last weekend of the allied super political action committee, Never Back Down. That group has been effectively running DeSantis’ operation in Iowa.

With the state’s caucuses six weeks away, the stakes are higher than ever for DeSantis’ political team and supporters, who have watched the Florida governor go from the buzziest alternative to former President Donald Trump to one of the most mocked in a matter of months.

Never Back Down leadership has been in disarray in recent weeks, with three top officials leaving in rapid succession. The group’s chief executive officer Chris Jankowski resigned in late November. Since then, the super PAC’s chairman Adam Laxalt left, followed by interim chief executive officer Kristin Davison, who departed days after being appointed to the top job. Wagner is the third CEO of the group within the past month. One of Never Back Down’s top communications staffers, Erin Perrine, also left the group over the weekend.

The personnel turmoil did not stop there.

Florida-based lobbyists, with close ties to DeSantis’ campaign manager James Uthmeier, and one of DeSantis’ state government advisers have formed a new super PAC called “Fight Right” to handle advertising. DeSantis and his team have been unhappy with Never Back Down’s attacks on Nikki Haley, the governor’s chief rival for second place in the Republican field.

“Fight Right has publicly announced their operation features minimal overhead, and 100% of contributions go direct to TV ads,” Uthmeier announced in a memo on fundraising. DeSantis met with donors last week in Palm Beach, Florida, to try to raise money for the new group.

Political Fights

The leadership shakeups are the latest instances of infighting between the governor’s campaign in Tallahassee and Never Back Down, headquartered in Atlanta and run by longtime Republican operative Jeff Roe, who has never had the full trust of the Florida team.

DeSantis launched his presidential campaign in May with a well-funded super PAC and lofty expectations that he could wrestle the GOP mantel from Trump. Instead his run has been marked by public missteps and internal campaign bickering. Trump’s lead over DeSantis has widened and Haley has surpassed him as runner-up in many polls.

As the Florida governor’s poll numbers have dropped, the finger-pointing and blame game have grown. The campaign operatives privately say Never Back Down has spent money irresponsibly — much to the benefit of Roe’s company Axiom Strategies — while the super PAC team views the Florida campaign as a group of novices, who have no national political experience.

Roe did not respond to a request for comment.

“Our campaign is firing on all cylinders as we hit the home stretch in Iowa, and Ron DeSantis remains the only candidate who can defeat Donald Trump for the nomination and Joe Biden for the White House,” DeSantis campaign communications director Andrew Romeo said in a statement.

Campaigns and super PACs are not legally allowed to coordinate with one another, so much of the communication and posturing often plays out in the press.

The tensions have been percolating since late summer, two donors said. The mood in Tallahassee is increasingly dour, according to two people in frequent touch with the campaign staff.

Reality Check

“I think this paring back is really a great thing. While everyone there was committed, brilliant and dedicated to the governor, there were too many cooks in the kitchen and too many chiefs in the boardroom,” said Roy Bailey, who has hosted several fundraisers for DeSantis.

The governor has privately acknowledged to friends and allies that Trump holds so much sway over the Republican voter base that it leaves little room for alternative candidates. The timing may not have been right for DeSantis to run, according to allies.

Some DeSantis staffers say the governor could perform better than expected in Iowa — given his visits to all 99 counties and powerful endorsements from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats — and that could invigorate the campaign.

“The collective firepower of Team DeSantis remains unmatched,” deputy campaign manager David Polyansky said in a statement.

DeSantis needs to win Iowa, or come within 10 percentage points of Trump, if he wants to raise money from donors who are increasingly skeptical of his chances, according to people close to campaign.

The DeSantis campaign released an ad this week playing up his faith and his visits to churches in Iowa, a state where evangelical voters will play a key role in the GOP primary.

After Iowa, that state where DeSantis’ campaign and allied super PAC have spent the most time and money, the schedule looks even bleaker.

In New Hampshire, the second state to vote, residents prefer more moderate candidates, and DeSantis is polling in the single digits. Up next is South Carolina — Haley’s home state. Both she and Trump are expected to do well, leaving little room for DeSantis to amass delegates. Donors will not keep funding an operation with no margin for success, one DeSantis ally said.

--With assistance from Julie Fine and Gregory Korte.

(Updates with another departure from super PAC, in fourth paragraph.)

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