Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is working to harness the power of big money in open defiance of federal election laws — betting that no one will hold him accountable.
In a political era dominated by wealthy and often secret donors, the activities undertaken by DeSantis and his outside group allies still stand out — and could render what little remains of federal campaign finance laws as completely meaningless.
A pro-DeSantis super PAC reportedly just received an $82 million windfall from the leftover funds in a political committee the governor ran in Florida. The transfer appears to violate federal election rules as written, though election regulators deadlocked and failed to act on a similar, smaller case last year. The contribution comes after the DeSantis administration changed state guidelines to bless such a move.
“DeSantis will reap the rewards of illegally using $82 million of state campaign funds to support his presidential run,” said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance lawyer and deputy executive director at political research group Documented. Fischer said there’s a “good chance” the Federal Election Commission (FEC) “will let DeSantis get away with it, and even if the agency does take action, the penalties will only be levied after DeSantis’s campaign already benefited from the illegal spending.”
In recent years, well-funded outside groups like super PACs have become an increasingly integral part of political campaigns. This is primarily because candidates’ campaign committees are restricted by contribution limits (currently $3,300 per person), and super PACs can accept donations of any size — including from corporations that are barred from directly giving to candidates.
Given the state money transfer and the DeSantis campaign’s heavy reliance on a super PAC called Never Back Down, experts say that DeSantis and his allies appear to be testing the boundaries of campaign finance laws further than ever before. Outside groups have employed similar tactics, but never at this scale. His team is effectively betting that the campaign finance cops at the FEC are fully asleep on the job.
Super PACs, according to the reasoning of the judicial decision that led to their creation, are supposed to operate independently from candidates. But Never Back Down is actively raising small-dollar donations for DeSantis’s presidential campaign, running TV and digital ads promoting DeSantis, sending mailers, hosting some of his campaign events, and building its own field team outside the campaign. The super PAC expects to have a $200 million budget, with $100 million for voter outreach, according to the New York Times.
A top DeSantis campaign official, Sam Cooper, recently admitted on a donor call that the campaign is factoring in support from “an outside group” that is going to help the campaign organize in larger states — like California, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia — slated to hold primaries on “Super Tuesday” in March 2024, according to leaked audio from a campaign presentation.
Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer at the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, recently told CBS News that the group plans to “do things no other super PAC has done before,” adding: “Every dollar Never Back Down asks for online will go directly to the Ron DeSantis for President campaign.”
Taken together, the group’s activities amount to “a complete end-run around our campaign finance rules, which are in place to curb corruption and the appearance of corruption,” said Stephen Spaulding, a vice president at the watchdog group Common Cause.
The DeSantis campaign and Never Back Down did not respond to questions from the Lever.
“DeSantis Is Taking a Very Aggressive Approach”
Super PACs, “independent expenditure-only” committees that can accept unlimited donations, were created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. That ruling was based on the fiction that outside groups’ expenditures in support of candidates are made separately from campaigns — and thus pose low risk for corruption.
“By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate,” the court wrote, concluding that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
The ruling quickly led to the proliferation of super PACs that only exist to support a single candidate. While super PACs were initially often used to launch pricey ad blitzes, the groups have become functionally embedded within campaigns and both political parties — even though they legally cannot coordinate with candidates.
Federal election regulators have failed to police the growing interactions between candidates and super PACs, even as we’ve seen super PACs taping documentaries with candidates, handling advance work for presidential campaign events, and performing opposition research to benefit campaigns.
The FEC, which is made up of three Democratic appointees and three Republicans, has consistently split 3-3 on key policy and enforcement questions, creating new gray areas for campaigns and super PACs to exploit. It can also take the FEC years to issue decisions on campaign finance complaints.
Last year, the FEC deadlocked in a case over whether a Florida congressional candidate violated federal campaign finance laws prohibiting candidates from using nonfederal funds in a federal election that were raised without contribution limits.
Republican lawmaker Byron Donalds formed a Florida political committee — the state equivalent of a super PAC — that later donated $107,000 to a super PAC that boosted his campaign for Congress.
DeSantis’s team is reportedly making the same move with a much larger pot of money — at least $82 million worth — from his Florida political committee, previously known as Friends of Ron DeSantis.
Friends of Ron DeSantis, renamed Empower Parents PAC last month, has now transferred its fortune to Never Back Down, the federal super PAC backing the governor’s presidential campaign, according to Axios.
“A 3-3 deadlock doesn’t mean a practice is legal, it just means the FEC commissioners couldn’t agree,” said Fischer, who filed the complaint against Donalds. “DeSantis is taking a very aggressive approach and betting that if the FEC deadlocked before, it’ll deadlock again. Even if the FEC does find that DeSantis violated the law with this brazen $82 million move, that decision won’t come until years after the election, and the penalty likely will be minimal.”
Stuart McPhail, a litigation counsel at the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said DeSantis and his allies appear to be operating under the assumption that the FEC won’t investigate them.
“There’s no one really guarding the vault here,” said McPhail. “Even if someone did try to enforce the law, you have a current [Supreme] Court that is very skeptical of any kind of campaign finance law. And I think a number of them feel like they have friends on the court. The donors behind the campaign have friends on the court.”
Indeed, the DeSantis super PAC is being led by Chris Jankowski, a veteran Republican operative who helped form the historic $1.6 billion dark money fund helmed by Leonard Leo. As former president Donald Trump’s judicial adviser, Leo helped select three of the Supreme Court’s six conservative justices.
Friends of Ron DeSantis, the political committee now financing Never Back Down, received $500,000 last fall from the Judicial Crisis Network, the main political advocacy arm of Leo’s dark money network.
Other major donors to the group have included: hedge fund titan Ken Griffin ($10.8 million), budget hotel magnate Robert Bigelow ($10 million), Wall Street trader Jeff Yass ($2.6 million), and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts ($1 million). The conservative Club for Growth PAC donated $2 million to Friends of Ron DeSantis last summer.
The DeSantis team has been laying the groundwork for the big money transfer to the super PAC for some time. Last week, NBC News reported that DeSantis administration officials quietly published new guidance in March asserting that Florida political committees can donate to federal political groups.
The state’s new campaign finance handbook reversed previous guidance from state officials mandating that Florida political committees could only use their funds for Florida political activities, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
The new language states, “A Florida political committee may make contributions to an out-of-state political entity that engages solely in non-coordinated expenditures.”
“We Have an Outside Group That’s Helping Us”
With Never Back Down, DeSantis and his allies are trying to utilize big, outside money in unprecedented ways — including to help directly fund the governor’s presidential campaign.
The super PAC first raised $500,000 for a DeSantis draft committee, and that cash will soon be transferred to DeSantis’s campaign committee, according to CBS News.
Now that DeSantis is in the race, the donation link on Never Back Down’s website directs supporters to donate to Ron DeSantis for President, the governor’s campaign committee. The super PAC’s donation page on the platform WinRed features disclosures saying the solicitation is paid for by both Ron DeSantis for President and Never Back Down.
“We are SO CLOSE to reaching our one-million-dollar fundraising launch goal to support DeSantis for president,” the group texted on Monday. “We are calling on conservative patriots to please rush anything you can spare to ensure we reach this critical goal.”
According to Fischer, this is not an entirely new tactic. The super PAC backing freshman Sen. J. D. Vance (R-OH) reportedly raised money for his campaign last cycle. However, Fischer added, “To my knowledge, this is the first cycle where we’ve seen single-candidate super PACs driving online donations to presidential campaigns.”
Never Back Down is additionally working to build an expansive field operation that will give DeSantis an advantage in a longer race — a fact that Cooper, the top DeSantis campaign official, touted in a recent donor presentation obtained by Florida Politics.
“There’s really never been a presidential campaign that’s been able to organize past the first four [states],” said Cooper. “You run as hot as you can the first four, Super Tuesday comes and you just kinda hope good things happen to you. That’s not going to be our approach. We’re going to organize in all these states. We have an outside group that’s helping us organize in all these states that’s going to hire bodies, and we’re going to compete.”
On Monday, Never Back Down’s communications director, Erin Perrine, told Newsmax that the super PAC has “knocked over 100,000 doors already” in early states, adding: “That’s not happening for any other candidate at this point in the race.”
For campaign finance experts, Never Back Down’s activities represent the culmination of federal election regulators’ failure to ensure that super PACs can’t simply operate as big money arms of political campaigns.
“The FEC’s inability to enforce campaign finance laws is promoting a culture of near-impunity,” said Fischer. “Candidates know that they can aggressively push the legal envelope and expect to get away with it. But even presidential candidates who are careful to comply with the law still rely on a supportive super PAC to stay competitive. As a result, wealthy special interests have an incredible amount of power and influence over our democracy.”