Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have violated federal campaign finance law when his old state-level PAC reportedly transferred tens of millions of dollars to the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, the nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center alleges in a new complaint with the Federal Election Commission filed Tuesday morning.
The Republican governor kicked off his highly anticipated 2024 presidential campaign last Wednesday in a technically-glitchy Twitter Spaces discussion with CEO Elon Musk. The discussion was moderated by tech entrepreneur David Sacks, who contributed more than $70,000 to DeSantis’ 2022 reelection campaign.
But DeSantis was privately telling donors about his plans to run for president months before his public announcement, which Campaign Legal Center alleges triggered federal campaign finance law provisions barring candidates — and affiliated entities “directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained, or controlled by or acting on behalf of” a federal candidate or officeholder — from spending “soft money” on federal elections.
“Soft money undermines federal campaign finance laws because it is, by definition, money raised and spent outside the scope of those laws,” Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at Campaign Legal Center, said in a written statement.
The Florida governor’s political operation raised $210.9 million during the 2022 election, smashing the gubernatorial fundraising record. DeSantis’ old state-level PAC, which could raise unlimited contributions under Florida campaign finance laws, raked in more than $173.2 million of that total.
DeSantis’ federal campaign is legally barred from accessing the more than $80 million left over in his state-level PAC, but a Never Back Down spokesperson told the New York Times that funds from DeSantis’ old state-level PAC would make up a sizable portion of the super PAC’s $200 million budget.
Never Back Down has already spent more than $1 million on voter outreach calls, print advertising, stickers and signs supporting the Florida governor’s presidential campaign. The super PAC also targeted two competing Republican presidential candidates, spending $35,820 on media opposing former President Donald Trump as well as $29,000 on media opposing former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Federal super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money but are legally prohibited from coordinating these “independent expenditures” with campaigns. DeSantis cut ties with the state-level PAC, recently renamed from “Friends of Ron DeSantis” to “Empower Parents PAC,” in early May. The state-level PAC is now chaired by Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, who sponsored several of DeSantis’ key priorities in the Florida legislature.
While DeSantis formally launched his presidential bid in May, he privately told donors about plans to run for president as early as March, when the Washington Post reported DeSantis described his plans to run for president “without any caveats that would suggest he’s still deciding,” which Campaign Legal Center alleges triggered his run for president. By early April 2023, DeSantis and senior advisors were laying out a strategy to take on Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, NBC News reported.
DeSantis also picked up endorsements from 99 out of the 113 Republican lawmakers in the Florida Legislature. That included Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R) and House Speaker Paul Renner (R), who endorsed his presidential bid one week before he announced his campaign.
Although term limits prevent DeSantis from running for governor again in 2026, his state-level PAC continued to raise money after the 2022 election. The state-level PAC brought in more than $3.8 million between March 1 and April 30.
“Friends of Ron DeSantis — recently renamed ‘Empower Parents PAC’ as part of a clear effort to distance the group from DeSantis — brazenly violated the law when it transferred this colossal sum to a federal super PAC,” Campaign Legal Center’s complaint claims.
Neither DeSantis’ campaign nor Never Back Down replied to OpenSecrets’ request for comment.
Well ahead of his presidential campaign announcement, DeSantis traveled around the U.S. and abroad building his base and courting donors. Wealthy individuals and an opaque Michigan-based nonprofit, And To The Republic, helped fund his travel, according to the New York Times. Several lobbyists also told the New York Times they frequently fielded requests for planes from DeSantis’ political aides.
“We’re talking about funds from billionaires and corporate special interests who could exert massive influence over the candidate they are financing,” Ghosh said in a written statement.
“Laws banning these funds from being used to seek federal office are there for a reason – to prevent corruption, promote transparency, and ensure that wealthy special interests can’t rig the system even further in their favor.”
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) faced similar scrutiny when his old state-level PAC transferred $107,000 to Trusted Conservatives, a super PAC supporting Donalds in the U.S. House race during the 2020 election cycle. Several features set these two cases apart, including the fact that Donalds’ old state-level PAC did not change its name after Donalds ran for federal office. The FEC ultimately declined to investigate the complaint, saying “there was simply not sufficient evidence” to prove Donalds retained the ability or authority to influence governance of the state-level PAC after he cut ties with the group to run for federal office.