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DeSantis super PAC relies heavily on million-dollar mega-donors

Never Back Down, the outside group spending heavily to make Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis president, has raked in donations of $1 million or more from at least seven wealthy Republican benefactors or their companies, according to internal documents from the group. It had nearly $97 million in cash-on-hand at the end of June.

The super PAC’s fundraising haul includes millions of dollars from former supporters of Donald Trump who publicly cut ties after the 2021 U.S. Capitol riots, including Nevada hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, who gave more than $20 million, and Silicon Valley investor Douglas M. Leone, who gave $2 million. The two biggest donors in Republican politics during the 2022 midterm cycle, packaging magnates Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, also gave $1 million each.

Companies controlled by the Florida housing developer Mori Hosseini — who loaned a golf simulator for DeSantis’s use and benefited from a $92 million state transportation grant near his properties — gave $1 million. Other seven-figure donors included Saul Fox, a major GOP donor who recently thanked Trump for his support of Israel by offering him a loan of antiquities; Stefan Brodie, the founder of a Pennsylvania biotechnology firm; and David J. Millstone, the CEO of the industrial company Standard Industries.

Such large donations — combined with a transfer of $82.5 million from the governor’s former Florida political operation — have allowed Never Back Down to build a more expansive political operation than any other group this cycle, with a goal of pushing the boundaries of what an outside group can do to help a presidential campaign. At the same time, DeSantis’s own operation has been forced to cut back spending amid a decline in his polling numbers.

Never Back Down officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic matters, talked to The Washington Post before Monday’s campaign finance filing, sharing extensive internal data that they said will be contained in the group’s formal filing to the Federal Election Commission, as well as some information that will not.

Chris Jankowski, the group’s chief executive officer, plans to tell the group’s leadership in a memo that the midyear report will show that Never Back Down spent 4 out of every 5 dollars on voter contact, building a custom national voter file and technology investments that are driving the group’s field program. He said that they have built the most experienced team ever formed at a super PAC and that their efforts to adhere to strict governance and contracting standards — including limited commissions to consultants, fundraisers and vendors — have resulted in a highly efficient operation.

Despite the financial prowess of Never Back Down, DeSantis has continued to lose ground against Trump in national and some early state polls as they battle for the nomination. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday showed Trump leading the field with the backing of 54 percent of likely Republican voters. DeSantis trailed with the support of 17 percent and no other candidate drew the support of more than 3 percent of GOP voters.

The group raised $130 million from the start of the year — most of it consisting of the money transferred from the former DeSantis Florida group — and spent $33.8 million between March and June, building a staff of 121 people and a contract workforce of about 240 canvassers, who work out of 11 offices across the country. About 85 percent of the funds they spent through the end of June went to what they call “direct voter contact,” a category that includes television, digital and mail advertising, as well as the group’s field program of paid canvassers.

Never Back Down is trying to do something that has never been attempted in presidential politics — using unregulated checks of unlimited size to pay for most of the business typically associated with a candidate and campaign during a nomination fight, including event organizing, voter modeling, campaign fundraising, endorsement recruiting and even parts of the convention delegate strategy.

The group spent about $15.5 million in television, radio and digital ads over the first six months of this year, more than any presidential operation except for the super PAC affiliated with Trump, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact.

Never Back Down also shouldered some of the DeSantis campaign’s fundraising costs, raising about $740,000 through the end of June by way of about 8,000 new donors for the campaign, which is limited by law to raising no more than $3,300 from individuals for the primary campaign, officials said.

“Every conversation at the door, every text message reply is making us smarter and more efficient,” Jankowski said in a statement Monday. “We are running a full-scale operation that has never been done before at this level by either party. Donald Trump is using most of his donors’ money to cover his legal fees. This isn’t close.”

The group’s officials say they aim to raise an additional $100 million by March 2024, as donors who did not want to appear on this week’s disclosure reports write checks. Never Back Down also plans to send an increasing number of invitations to DeSantis to participate in fundraising events, after intentionally limiting their requests after the campaign started. The group also plans to step up its role in organizing events for DeSantis to appear at, as the governor’s campaign cuts back on costs.

Under campaign finance rules, DeSantis can appear at fundraisers for Never Back Down, but he cannot ask directly for money in excess of federal candidate limits. He can attend bus tours, parade events and even political rallies put on by Never Back Down as “a special guest.” But DeSantis and Never Back Down leadership are not allowed to coordinate directly on most spending decisions.

DeSantis’s official campaign, which raised $20 million in the six weeks between his announcement and the end of June, has faced scrutiny for its high expenses, leading to a round of layoffs this month.

While some other GOP presidential rivals are traveling in commercial planes, DeSantis’s campaign spent about $1.5 million on travel and private planes over the six-week period — which accounted for about 20 percent of its total spending in the second quarter.

Of the $20 million that DeSantis raised, about $3 million is earmarked for the general election and cannot be used for the nomination fight. Many of DeSantis’s campaign donors have already given the maximum allowed by law.

Trump has also faced criticism after a political action committee that raises money with his campaign spent more than $40 million on legal costs in the first half of 2023 to defend Trump, his advisers and others.

Never Back Down officials said they focused on running an efficient operation, despite its size and ambitions. Group leadership intentionally hired one umbrella firm, Axiom Strategies, a consultant for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), to do much of the work for Never Back Down, but they say they have worked to limit the profit margins of their vendors.

In a memo to the group’s leadership, Jankowski said Axiom was paid $16.4 million, which included $14.8 million worth of media buys. An Axiom subsidiary took a commission of 1.75 percent for the media placement, or about $259,000, which Never Back Down officials said was lower than the industry standard. Jankowski said in the memo that there are no commissions paid to fundraisers, media consultants or any other vendors.

A canvassing vendor owned by Axiom, Vanguard Strategies, was paid $1.2 million, while Blitz Canvassing, a vendor owned by GP3, the company of DeSantis adviser Phil Cox, was paid $2.8 million. Both vendors are in charge of hiring and deploying door-knockers across targeted states.

Officials said the FEC filings would show a $409,000 in-kind donation to the group from Axiom, a result of the contract that Axiom President Jeff Roe initially signed with the group, which limited expenses. That donation reflects flights, hotel rooms, meals and strategic consulting time by Roe and others at the company that will not be billed to the super PAC, a Never Back Down official said. As a result, Jankowski said in the memo that Axiom Strategies had a net loss for its work with the group in the current reporting period.

The Never Back Down filing also includes $5.5 million in donations from Faithful & Strong Policies Inc., a group that matches the name of a nonprofit social-welfare organization that was founded last year in Florida. A website for a group of the same name describes Faithful & Strong as an operation accepting donations that is “committed to promoting and supporting conservative policies and ideas rooted in freedom and our founding principles that better the lives of individuals and families.”

Donors who do not want their names disclosed in federal filings sometimes give to independent groups through such “dark money” nonprofit groups that are not required under tax law to disclose their donors. The attorney that registered the group in the state of Florida did not return requests for comment.

In total, the group plans to report 174 unique contributions, which a PAC official said derive from 163 unique donors, since a handful of donors gave through multiple entities. About 90 percent of the donations come from the top-nine donors or their affiliates, including more than $20 million from Bigelow and the transfer from DeSantis’s state operation.

Many of the donors have Florida roots such as Hosseini, whom the governor reappointed to the University of Florida Board of Trustees. On the same day Hosseini’s companies donated to Never Back Down, other Florida developers and their companies also gave to the group.

A housing development company controlled by another DeSantis appointee to the University of Florida board, Patrick Zalupski, gave $250,000. Murray Goodman, a commercial real estate developer based in Palm Beach, gave $50,000.

In practice, the difference between the super PAC and the campaign’s activities may be lost on most voters. Workers for the super PAC have marched with DeSantis in parades, collected volunteer sign-up cards at DeSantis events, and the super PAC recently paid for a bus that transported DeSantis in Iowa.

In media appearances, DeSantis has appeared to speak about activities undertaken by the Never Back Down in the first-person plural.

“We have tried to use this early period to put the building blocks in place to be able to turn out people on caucus night, to be able to turn out people in the New Hampshire primary,” he said in a recent interview on Megyn Kelly’s SiriusXM podcast.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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