DeSantis, super PAC spent $158.5 million during presidential run in 2023

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Gov. Ron DeSantis’ failed presidential campaign and its affiliated super PAC, Never Back Down, spent a combined $158.5 million in 2023, an eye-popping sum for a candidate who didn’t win a single county in the lone state he competed in.

In total, the campaign and Never Back Down raised nearly $180 million in 2023, according to FEC filings late Wednesday. The report came out more than two weeks after he dropped out of the race following a second-place finish in the Iowa GOP caucuses to former President Donald Trump.

“I think this remains one of the most epic collapses of a presidential campaign in modern political history,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from St. Petersburg and co-founder of the Forward Party. “And that’s not hyperbole.”

Never Back Down began with $82 million shifted over from a PAC supporting DeSantis’ 2022 reelection campaign as governor. The group formed in March “to urge” DeSantis to run for president and launched an anti-Trump ad a month before DeSantis announced his run in May.

Overall, the PAC raised more than $145.1 million, according to its FEC filing, and spent more than $130 million, leaving a balance of about $14.5 million. The campaign and super PAC continued to spend money in early 2024. Reports on how much aren’t due for months.

The DeSantis campaign itself raised about $35 million in 2023, though it only raised $6.7 million in the final three months of the year. The campaign had spent about $28 million by Dec. 31.

Despite federal rules that prevent coordination between a candidate and a PAC, Never Back Down essentially became DeSantis’ de facto campaign, with its events in Iowa and New Hampshire featuring “special guest” DeSantis.

“DeSantis was encumbered by some legal restrictions, but it largely was a DeSantis operation, operating within the required legal constraints,” Jolly said. “But he populated it with his friends and allies who thought like him, strategized like him and planned to run the campaign as he wanted it to be run. And it is hard to imagine and hard to explain how so much money could be spent for so little results.”

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the closest comparison to DeSantis’ campaign was another Republican Florida governor, Jeb Bush, who along with his associated PAC spent $130 million on his similarly abridged 2016 presidential campaign.

“This is almost a Florida tradition,” Coleman said. “Jeb Bush seemed to pioneer the strategy of these super PACs, and DeSantis really sort of took it to the next level.”

DeSantis visited all 99 counties in Iowa during a campaign that largely kept him away from Florida, including flying back to the Hawkeye State just hours after his State of the State address in early January and amid a storm-related state of emergency.

Coleman said that visiting every county is called “the full Grassley” in Iowa, named for the annual trip by 90-year-old GOP U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“Something Grassley is known for is he’s very cheap,” joked Coleman. “So I would say maybe Ron DeSantis needs to ask Chuck Grassley how to get around the state.”

At one point, Never Back Down leaders said the PAC was planning to spend $100 million on a door-knocking campaign in Iowa and other early-voting states.

Jolly said that the almost total focus on Iowa, with little result in return, “says that the money spent by Never Back Down had zero impact. … Every dime of that 100-plus million was spent for nothing.”

Among Never Back Down’s expenditures was $2.75 million to a Club for Growth-aligned super PAC, Win It Back, which launched a series of anti-Trump ads shortly afterward, Politico first reported.

Even though Never Back Down was a closely DeSantis-aligned operation, the PAC was in turmoil at the start of the year after a series of high-profile departures and a Washington Post story that included DeSantis allies claiming there was “mismanagement and conduct issues.”

The PAC announced layoffs following DeSantis’ distant second-place finish in Iowa despite a supposed shift to South Carolina, a hint that the campaign was soon to end.

Coleman said the DeSantis campaign revealed the limits of PAC-campaign coordination.

“You don’t want to be too reliant on your super PAC, because you need your top talent still in-house in your presidential campaign,” Coleman said. “It could go down as something of a cautionary tale.”

Reports of heavy spending for DeSantis’ private flights also bedeviled the campaign.

Any potential contributors for a future DeSantis run “certainly would need some reassurances,” Coleman said. “I would at least tell him to cut back on his private jets.”

The DeSantis campaign also got into hot water last year after reports of top administration officials soliciting money from lobbyists, as well as a South Florida Sun Sentinel report that people with financial interests before the state government were big campaign donors.

Jolly, a longtime campaign reform advocate dating back to his time in Congress, blasted the loopholes in the law that allowed DeSantis’ reelection PAC to turn over and become his presidential PAC, as well as to become his de facto campaign itself.

“Every special interest in the state of Florida who gave money to Ron DeSantis’ political committee should feel like they were taken and should feel a little victimized,” Jolly said.

American campaign finance laws are a “modern-day scandal and one of the dirtiest parts of politics,” he added.

“DeSantis figured out through his team how to take advantage of every part of the law that would help him, and it helped him spend a whole lot of money,” Jolly said. “But it didn’t help them win a whole lot of votes. And that’s why he’s back home in Tallahassee.”