To Understand the Upcoming Republican Primary, Follow the Dark Money

The operative leading Ron DeSantis’s super PAC is closely associated with conservative activist Leonard Leo, the beneficiary of the largest dark money donation in US history. But Leo’s not putting all his eggs in one basket for the 2024 presidential election.

Conservative activist Leonard Leo’s ties to Florida governor Ron DeSantis are the strongest among the potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

The Republican operative leading the super PAC backing Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis was closely involved with a record-breaking dark money donation to conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, the architect of the Supreme Court’s rightward swing, according to records obtained by the Lever.

Chris Jankowski, CEO of the pro-DeSantis group Never Back Down, is listed in the documents as the “settlor” — effectively, the creator — of the Marble Freedom Trust, a massive pool of cash Leo is using to finance conservative advocacy groups.

In 2021, the trust received $1.6 billion from the sale of Chicago businessman Barre Seid’s surge-protector empire, constituting the largest known dark money donation in history and leaving Leo in control of an unprecedented political advocacy fund.

The role Jankowski played in developing the Marble Freedom Trust has not previously been reported, though he has for years served as a consultant for Leo’s dark money network, which played a central role in flipping control of the Supreme Court and building its 6–3 conservative supermajority.

“Mr. Leo has known Chris Jankowski for many years and considers him one of the most effective political strategists in the country,” said a spokesperson at Leo’s consulting firm, CRC Advisors. “Governor DeSantis’s Never Back Down PAC is fortunate to have him there.”

Never Back Down and Jankowski did not respond to the Lever’s requests for comment.

Jankowski’s current role with the DeSantis super PAC is just one place where Leo’s influence will be felt throughout the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Leo, who helped select and install three Supreme Court nominees as President Donald Trump’s top judicial adviser, has used his dark money network to distribute major donations to nonprofits affiliated with several other potential primary contenders, including Mike Pence and Nikki Haley.

Leo’s ties to DeSantis are perhaps the most extensive among the potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders. The Florida Republican’s crusade against “woke capital” and his recent decision to sign a six-week abortion ban seem to be perfectly calibrated to appeal to Leo, a hard-line social conservative who has financed a broader messaging war against “woke capitalism.”

“Lead Consultant to the Judicial Crisis Network”

Jankowski, a longtime conservative operative, is best known for spearheading the Republican State Leadership Committee’s highly successful 2010 Project Redmap campaign — an effort to tip state house elections across the country and then use the redistricting process to help the GOP lock in a long-lasting advantage in congressional and state legislative elections.

Since 2014, Jankowski has been periodically identified as a consultant with the Judicial Crisis Network, a key dark money cog in Leo’s campaign to remake both the federal and state courts.

“In 2016 to 2018, Chris served as a lead consultant to the Judicial Crisis Network’s successful Supreme Court confirmation campaigns,” read Jankowski’s bio on one conservative nonprofit’s website. “These efforts blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland and pushed for confirmation of Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. These unprecedented efforts, with almost $30 million spent, helped create a new conservative majority on the court.”

Records obtained by the Lever show that Jankowski helped Leo establish the Marble Freedom Trust, his $1.6 billion landmark dark money fund. Jankowski was the trust’s settlor — which generally means a trust’s creator or donor.

The donation for the trust came from Seid, who, as part of his “attack philanthropy” strategy, gifted the entirety of his electronics business to the trust, which then sold it.

Now Jankowski is helming Never Back Down, a super PAC that’s preparing to help perform core campaign operations to boost DeSantis, despite the fact that such outside groups cannot directly coordinate with candidates.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that officials at Never Back Down have “been telling donors they intend to push the bounds of what an independent effort can do in presidential years” and are planning “a major push into the sort of organizing in early states that has historically been undertaken by candidates themselves.”

The Post added that “Never Back Down could receive a transfer of the more than $85 million that DeSantis has in a state fundraising account if he becomes a candidate.”

DeSantis’s Leo-World Ties

In recent years, Jankowski was listed on the board of advisers at N2 America, a dark money group designed to boost the GOP’s image in the suburbs. The organization campaigned for schools to resume in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic and boosted the confirmation of Trump’s 2020 Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.

Tax records show N2 America was primarily funded by Leo’s Concord Fund, which donated at least $1 million to N2 America between 2020 and 2021. The organization reported raising $1.5 million during that time.

DeSantis’s nascent campaign operation includes several other N2 America alumni.

Generra Peck, the organization’s vice president, is reportedly expected to serve as DeSantis’s 2024 campaign manager if he runs, and is currently working as a consultant for his Florida-level political committee.

Phil Cox, who served on N2 America’s board of advisers, is serving as a senior adviser to Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC led by Jankowski.

Peck and Cox helped lead DeSantis’s 2022 gubernatorial reelection campaign. Peck previously worked at Cox’s consulting firms.

The DeSantis super PAC’s leadership team also includes Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and Trump administration official.

Since 2021, Cuccinelli has been the national chairman of the Election Transparency Initiative — an effort designed to protect Republican voter suppression laws around the country — which is part of the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion advocacy group.

Leo’s network donated $2.3 million to the Susan B. Anthony List between July 2020 and June 2021.

Hedging His Bets

DeSantis isn’t the only potential GOP presidential contender with significant ties to Leo.

Leo’s Concord Fund contributed $1 million in 2020–21 to Advancing American Freedom, a nonprofit chaired by former vice president Mike Pence that is serving as a “campaign-in-waiting,” according to Politico.

Since 2018, the Leo network has donated $1.5 million to Stand for America, a dark money group founded by Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump United Nations ambassador.

“I’m running for president to renew an America that’s proud and strong, not weak and woke,” Haley said in a speech last month to conservative activists. “Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”