Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to kick off his long-anticipated presidential announcement on Wednesday evening backed by a super PAC flush with tens of millions of dollars from the Republican’s old state-level PAC.
Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, told the New York Times that more than $80 million of its $200 million budget would be transferred from DeSantis’ old state-level PAC. DeSantis’ federal campaign is legally barred from accessing the funds left over in his state-level PAC, which was not subject to contribution limits under Florida campaign finance law.
“There’s no question that it’s illegal for a federal candidate to transfer money they raised for a state committee to a federal super PAC,” Erin Chlopak, senior director for campaign finance at Campaign Legal Center who worked for nearly a decade as part of the Federal Election Commission’s Office of General Counsel, told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
The Florida governor raised $210.9 million during the 2022 election, more money than any gubernatorial candidate has raised in U.S. history, according to OpenSecrets data. DeSantis’ state-level PAC, Friends of Ron DeSantis, raked in more than $173.2 million of that total, and his campaign brought in $37.7 million. The Wall Street Journal previously reported plans to transfer the state-level PAC’s remaining funds to the pro-DeSantis super PAC, which could then spend the money boosting DeSantis or attacking his opponents.
“Although super PACs are permitted to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, an essential, fundamental legal requirement is that they operate independently. That independence is nonexistent when a super PAC receives tens of millions of dollars from a state committee tied to the very candidate it is supporting,” Chlopak said, alleging the arrangement “would enable the candidate to completely circumvent the rules Congress enacted to prevent corruption and ensure our federal election campaigns are transparent.”
DeSantis formally cut ties with the state-level PAC earlier this month, POLITICO reported, notifying the state that he is “no longer associated with the political committee” and that he is no longer raising money for Friends of Ron DeSantis.
The state-level PAC is now chaired by a close DeSantis ally, Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia. Ingoglia sponsored several of DeSantis’ key priorities during the Florida legislative session, and DeSantis recently signed several Ingoglia-sponsored bills into law, including $12 million in funding for the governor’s controversial crackdown on “unauthorized immigration” and legislation reducing the death penalty threshold from a unanimous jury decision to require just eight out of 12 jurors to vote for the death penalty.
Before the legislative session adjourned on May 5, the Florida legislature passed a bill to carve out an exception to the state’s “resign to run” law for any candidate seeking presidential or vice presidential office. This cleared the path for DeSantis to pursue his presidential ambitions without forcing him to resign from office.
DeSantis demurred on his presidential ambitions for months even as he toured the country — and the globe — raising his profile and courting wealthy donors. Deep-pocketed individuals and an opaque Michigan-based nonprofit, And To The Republic, helped fund his travel, according to the New York Times, which also spoke with several lobbyists who fielded requests for planes from DeSantis’ political aides. By waiting so long to announce his presidential campaign, he’s been able to skirt federal election rules that would restrict the influence of such largess, campaign finance experts told the New York Times.
DeSantis is set to finally announce his 2024 presidential campaign Wednesday in a discussion with Twitter CEO Elon Musk. The Twitter Space discussion will be moderated by tech entrepreneur David Sacks, who contributed $50,000 to the Florida governor’s state-level PAC and more than $20,000 in “in-kind” food and beverage contributions during the 2022 election cycle.
A team of wealthy business leaders representing industries from real estate to finance will gather at the Four Seasons hotel in Miami from Wednesday through Friday to help DeSantis raise money, CNBC reported. Several wealthy donors who contributed millions to his gubernatorial fundraising operation have pledged to support DeSantis’ presidential run, while others who have supported DeSantis in the past have expressed reservations.
Billionaire hotel tycoon and space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow told TIME he plans to throw his fortune behind DeSantis in the 2024 presidential election. Bigelow contributed $10 million to DeSantis’ state-level PAC during the 2022 election cycle, which was not only the single largest contribution to DeSantis’ political operation, but also the largest single political donation in Florida state history. The UFO enthusiast already reportedly contributed $20 million to the pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, which won’t be required to disclose its donors until second quarter reports are due to the FEC on July 15.
Ken Griffin, CEO of the Miami-based hedge fund Citadel, contributed nearly $10.8 million to DeSantis’ political operation in recent years. Griffin gave $5.8 million to DeSantis’ state-level PAC when the Floridian was first elected governor during the 2018 election cycle and another $5 million during his 2022 reelection bid.
While Griffin told POLITICO in November that he was ready to back DeSantis and “move on to the next generation,” the Citadel CEO has privately questioned some of DeSantis’ policy moves and public rhetoric. Griffin was reportedly concerned by DeSantis’ remark that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “territorial dispute” — which the Florida governor later tried to walk back — and a six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed into law in Florida last month.
Richard Uihlein, the billionaire founder of the business and shipping supply company ULINE, is also reportedly holding his cards close. Uihlein contributed $700,000 to DeSantis’ state-level PAC during his 2018 gubernatorial bid and an additional $700,000 to his 2022 reelection race, but a person familiar with Uihlein’s political spending strategy told NBC News in March, “The brakes are pumped” after polling showed DeSantis lagging behind former President Donald Trump.
A Trump-aligned super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., has been hammering DeSantis ahead of the Florida governor’s presidential announcement. MAGA Inc. spent $14 million attacking Democratic U.S. Senate candidates and $1 million boosting their Republican challengers in hotly contested races during the 2022 election cycle.
The super PAC has already spent $14 million on TV, radio and digital ads attacking DeSantis. The ads skewer DeSantis for votes he cast to cut Medicare and Social Security and raise sales taxes when he represented Florida’s 6th Congressional District in Congress from 2012 through 2018. MAGA Inc. also mocked DeSantis for reporting by the Daily Beast alleging the Floridian ate a cup of pudding with his fingers on a private plane trip, a story DeSantis denies.
One of Trump’s campaign managers told NBC News that DeSantis should expect “more of the same” as the presidential race heats up.
DeSantis is also feuding with one of the top employers in the state, Disney. The saga started in March 2022, when Disney criticized a bill to bar discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in Florida schools through the third grade, which has since been raised to 12th grade. DeSantis dubbed the company “Woke Disney,” and Florida legislators have since stripped the entertainment giant of its long-held authority to self-govern the 25,000-acre resort.
Disney sued DeSantis for control of the land last month, claiming “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” The company recently canceled a $1 billion plan to move 2,000 employees from California to Orlando, calling the Florida governor “anti-business.”
DeSantis said there is “zero” chance he would be “backing down from” the fight with Disney in the days before he kicked off his presidential campaign.
5/24/23: This article was updated to correct an earlier misspelling of Ken Griffin.