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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

DeSantis allies’ $200 million plan for beating Trump

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) delivers keynote remarks at an event hosted by Peoria County Republicans in Peoria, Ill. on Friday, May 12, 2023. As the Florida governor enters the 2024 race, a super PAC with a mountain of cash is building an army of organizers.

By Shane Goldmacher, Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman

A key political group supporting Ron DeSantis’ presidential run is preparing a $100 million voter outreach push so big, it plans to knock on the door of every possible DeSantis voter at least four times in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and five times in the kickoff Iowa caucuses.

The effort is part of an on-the-ground organizing operation that intends to hire more than 2,600 field organizers by Labor Day, an extraordinary number of people for even the best-funded campaigns.

Top officials with the pro-DeSantis group, a super PAC called Never Back Down, provided their most detailed account yet of their battle plan for DeSantis, whom they believe they can sell as the only candidate to take on — and win — the cultural fights that are definitional for the Republican Party in 2024.

The group said it expected to have an overall budget of at least $200 million, including more than $80 million expected to be transferred from an old DeSantis state political account, for the daunting task of vaulting the Florida governor past former President Donald Trump, who has established himself as the dominant early front-runner.

DeSantis was set to enter the presidential race Wednesday in a live audio conversation on Twitter, and the super PAC’s enormous cash reserves are expected to be among the few advantages that DeSantis has in the race, and perhaps the most significant.

The group is already taking on many tasks often reserved for the campaign itself: securing endorsements in early primary states, sending mailers, organizing on campuses, running television ads, raising small donations for the campaign in an escrow account and working behind the scenes to build crowds for the governor’s events. Hiring is underway in 18 states, and officials said plans were in the works to assemble various pro-DeSantis coalitions, such as for voters who are veterans or those focused on issues like abortion, guns or agriculture.

“No one has ever contemplated the scale of this organization or operation, let alone done it,” said Chris Jankowski, the group’s CEO. “This has just never even been dreamed up.”

In Iowa, the group has opened a boot camp on the outskirts of Des Moines, giving the facility the code name “Fort Benning,” after the old Army training outpost, with 189 graduates of an eight-day training program the first wave of an organizing army to follow. Door knocking begins Wednesday in New Hampshire.

The endeavor echoes the “Camp Cruz” that Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign set up near Des Moines.

At the helm of the DeSantis super PAC is Jeff Roe, a veteran Republican strategist who was Cruz’s campaign manager then. In an interview, Roe described an ambitious political apparatus whose 2,600 field organizers by autumn would be roughly double the peak of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ entire 2020 primary campaign staff.

Roe also previewed some of the contrasts that Never Back Down planned to draw with Trump. He argued that Trump had shied away from key fights that motivate the Republican base and on which DeSantis has led, including on LGBTQ issues, schools and taking on corporate America.

“How do you beat Trump?” Roe said, pointing to DeSantis’ assertiveness on those cultural issues. “Well, you beat Trump by beating Trump. And where Ron DeSantis has beaten Trump is by doing what Republican voters want him to do the most.”

DeSantis has steadily lost ground so far in 2023 and is trailing Trump nationally in polls by an average of 30 percentage points. And as the governor’s standing has diminished, more candidates have jumped into the race, an ever-expanding field that could make the sheer math even harder for DeSantis to topple a former president with a significant base of loyalists.

Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, mocked the group as “Always Back Down,” calling it “a clown show of epic proportions.”

“If DeSantis runs his campaign the same way as his super PAC, he’ll be in for a rude awakening,” Cheung said.

ming the 2024 race, Roe acknowledged that Trump has been “the leader of a movement.” But in Roe’s telling, it is DeSantis alone who “has the opportunity to be the leader of the party and the movement.”

“That is a key difference,” he said. “I don’t believe people fundamentally understand that you can be a leader of a movement and not be the leader of your party. Ron DeSantis has the ability to be both. Trump does not.”

Republican primary voters, Roe said, see the battle against the progressive left as an existential fight. He argues that DeSantis, not Trump, has led on three touchstone issues in that fight: taking on corporate America, engaging in what is being taught in schools, and confronting shifting norms and acceptance around sexual orientation and transgender medical care.

The governor’s clash with Disney touches on all three: battling a big corporation over what began as a fight over classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school. Trump sees the Disney battle as futile and has recently cheered on the company as it hit back against DeSantis.

Roe added that the intensity of the threat that Republicans perceive to their way of life is what makes electability a more salient issue for the party in 2024 and what makes DeSantis’ ability to fight those fights and still win in Florida so appealing.

“That is a manifest separation between the two candidates,” he said.

Unlike a candidate’s campaign committee, which has to abide by strict caps for each donor, there are no limits on how much a super PAC is allowed to raise.

And this one begins with unmatched financial firepower. Never Back Down is expected to begin with around $120 million — $40 million it says it already raised and $80 million from DeSantis’ old state political committee — a sum that is equal to what Jeb Bush’s super PAC spent in total in 2016.

But there are several legal impediments to this financial freedom. The people who run super PACs are prohibited from discussing strategy with the candidate or the campaign staff. Of course, if DeSantis disagrees with any super PAC decisions, he can always say so publicly and urge them to change course.

As a result, the biggest super PACs — entities that have existed for just the last roughly 12 years — have often essentially become independent vehicles to buy expensive television advertising. That model, however, is extremely inefficient. When the election nears, the airwaves are cluttered, and candidates are guaranteed, by law, far lower rates than super PACs. It is one reason the pro-DeSantis group plans to spend so heavily on its field program, officials said, citing studies that show personal voter contact has far greater return on investment.

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