Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) kicked off his second term as governor with two days of inaugural celebrations sponsored and attended by prominent lobbyists and political donors, underscoring a successful reelection bid hallmarked by record-breaking fundraising.
The Republican governor raised more than $217 million for his reelection bid, the most raised by any gubernatorial candidate in U.S. history, according to OpenSecrets data. DeSantis’ state-level PAC, Friends of Ron DeSantis, raked in nearly $176.8 million of that total while his campaign brought in $40.5 million.
DeSantis used his political operation’s largesse to defeat his Democratic opponent, former Republican Gov. and Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D–Fla.), who resigned from the U.S. House to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. Crist raised $31.6 million.
The $217 million DeSantis’ political operation raised in 2022 is a substantial jump from the $60.2 million raised for his initial election in the 2016 gubernatorial race.
The theme of DeSantis’ inauguration on Tuesday was “The Free State of Florida,” echoing his 2022 campaign motto, the Florida Standard first reported. In his inauguration speech, DeSantis repeated a line verbatim from his November acceptance speech: “Florida is where woke goes to die.”
Five $1 million donors received the “inaugural chair” designation, which included the ability to access multiple inaugural events. That included a photo with DeSantis, VIP seats to DeSantis’ swearing in and invitations to attend a candlelight dinner, inaugural ball and Toast to One Million Mamas, an event recognizing the more than 1 million women Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis mobilized in support of her husband.
The inaugural chairs for the event were lobbyists Brian Ballard of Ballard Partners, Bill Rubin of Rubin Turnbull & Associates, Nick Iarossi of Capital City Consulting and Jeff Hartley of Smith, Bryan & Myers, the Florida Standard first reported.
All four firms were listed among the top 11 highest-earning lobbying firms of 2021 based on state-level spending in Florida, with Ballard Partners and Capital City Consulting ranking second and third, respectively. The firms’ lucrative lobbying continued in 2022 with Ballard Partners and Capital City Consulting ranking in the top five firms — first and third, respectively – based on third-quarter lobbying earnings, according to Florida Politics. Smith, Bryan & Myers and Rubin Turnbull & Associates ranked in the top 15 for that quarter.
Some of the lobbyists also helped fund DeSantis’ political ambitions. Ballard gave $10,000 to DeSantis’ PAC in 2018 and gave his 2022 campaign another $3,000, the legal limit. Hartley gave DeSantis’ 2022 campaign the legal maximum contribution amount of $3,000, and Iarossi has been called a “top DeSantis fundraiser.”
A look toward the 2024 presidential election
DeSantis is widely expected to become a candidate in the 2024 presidential election and his inauguration address Tuesday further fueled speculation. The Republican primary would pit him against former President Donald Trump, who announced his campaign on Nov. 15 – a showdown that would put some political donors in an interesting position.
A longtime Florida lobbyist, Ballard built up his lobbying firm at the national level during the Trump administration. One of DeSantis’ inaugural chairs, Ballard previously served as a top political fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 campaign as chair of the joint fundraising committee Trump Victory, a member of Trump’s transition team and vice chair of Trump’s inaugural committee. He maintains close ties with both firebrand conservatives.
“Donald Trump on the debate stage is the most unique political animal in 100 years. Everybody got decimated by him [in 2016],” Ballard told CNN in October. “I believe Ron DeSantis can hold his own against anybody, but Donald Trump is his own character.”
Ken Griffin, CEO of the Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel and one of the top megadonors of the 2022 election cycle, has said he is ready to back DeSantis in 2024. The second largest individual contributor to DeSantis’ campaign during the last election cycle, Griffin contributed $5 million to DeSantis’ state-level PAC in 2022 and nearly $5.8 million in 2018.
But Griffin, who contributed more than $72.6 million to outside groups backing federal Republican candidates during the 2022 election cycle, contributed $5.1 million to a super PAC that spent $4.8 million opposing Trump during the 2016 election. The Citadel CEO told Bloomberg that Trump was a “three-time loser” the day the former president announced his bid.
On the other hand, Blackrock CEO Stephen Schwarzman – who contributed millions to pro-Trump super PACs during the 2016 and 2020 election cycles – signaled he won’t support Trump during the 2024 election. Schwarzman told Axios he planned to support a “new generation of leaders.”
While Schwarzman has not contributed to DeSantis’ political operation, DeSantis tweeted his thanks for a generous donation Schwarzman made to the Palm Beach County Food Bank in April 2021, including a photo of the governor and the megadonor.
Richard Uihlein, founder of the shipping and business supply company ULINE, may be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The top GOP megadonor of the 2022 election cycle — which Trump did not run in — Uihlein previously contributed a combined $900,000 to Trump Victory during the 2016 and 2018 election cycles and $3.3 million to Trump-aligned super PAC America First Action during the 2020 election cycle. But Uihlein also gave Friends of Ron DeSantis $700,000 during the 2022 election cycle. His wife gave an additional $500,000 to the state-level PAC.