Ron DeSantis has less money and more problems.
The Florida governor’s presidential campaign began this month with just $5 million in cash for the primary, a sum that is again raising doubts about his solvency, his budget and his ability to make up ground on front-runner Donald Trump.
The pain is so great that DeSantis is sending his aides from his headquarters in Tallahassee to Des Moines to take part in a crucial campaign in Iowa on January 15th. A better-funded operation could hire employees locally instead of shifting resources. It’s a cost-saving move that previous presidential campaigns have typically used only as a last-ditch measure to save money — and to provide a campaign-changing boost early on.
“The cash shortage has accelerated in the last month. It’s a huge problem,” said one DeSantis donor. “If the trend continues downward and Trump continues to be ahead in the polls, At some point they have to figure out whether it makes sense to withdraw and save face until 2028.”
The fundraising figures, confirmed by campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo, and the decision to move staffers from Florida to Iowa were first announced Wednesday from the New York Times. In total, DeSantis’ operation has raised $15 million over the past three months through a joint fundraising committee, his leadership PAC and his campaign, Romeo said.
However, some of the money can only be spent on the general election because it was raised by major donors who have already made the maximum primary donation. And despite a series of layoffs that were part of a high-profile reboot, DeSantis has burned through more primary money than he has raised over the past three months.
At the end of the second quarter, DeSantis had $6.6 million in primary funds, according to an NBC News analysis of his latest campaign finance filing — about $1.6 million more than his campaign now reports.
At the same point in the 2020 election cycle, it was Vice President Kamala Harris Back then, a senator from California running for the Democratic presidential nomination had about 10 million dollars available. She then dropped out of her studies at the beginning of December 2019 after… big Iowa-or-bust game.
DeSantis’ campaign manager in a statement touted the fundraising total as a sign of strength.
“Anyone who knows Ron DeSantis knows he is a fighter, a winner and a leader,” James Uthmeier said. “This significant fundraising effort not only provides us with the resources we need in the fight for Iowa and beyond, but it also silences the doubters who have ignored Ron DeSantis for far too long.”
Not all of them.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and is not aligned with a 2024 candidate, described the $5 million cash stockpile as bleak data point. Pawlenty dropped out of the 2012 presidential campaign in August 2011 after running out Campaign debt.
“Realistically, he would need 10 times that to be competitive with the rest of the field,” Conant said. “I think the DeSantis campaign is glowing red. After a really tough summer, the campaign is in full swing. And focusing entirely on Iowa when nothing else has worked doesn’t inspire confidence.”
DeSantis actually has a key asset that was missing from previous financially troubled campaigns: his cash-rich Never Back Down super PAC. The Super PAC is subject to its own changes as the DeSantis campaign resets again.
Chris Jankowski, who served as both Never Back Down’s CEO and board member, is stepping down from the organization’s board and will be replaced by Tre Evers, a veteran GOP operative based in Orlando. He remains the Group’s CEO.
“Chris Jankowski graciously filled the interim board spot while also leading the Never Back Down organization,” said Erin Perrine, the group’s spokeswoman. “Now that the Board has completed its months-long search for a permanent additional member, we are pleased to welcome Tre Evers to the Board of the Never Back Down Team.”
Nick Iarossi, a DeSantis ally and fundraiser, rejected the idea that the campaign’s finances had reached disappointing levels.
“Absolutely not,” said Iarossi. “This is a significant improvement from where the campaign was at the end of last quarter, when everyone who wrote it was dead. This $15 million quarterly report and cash balance shows that we are gaining momentum and moving in the right direction. Everyone is very pleased and donors are opening their wallets after his debate appearance.”
Still, the hunt for campaign cash intensified as the final quarter came to a close. Last month, the DeSantis campaign again appealed directly to Florida-based lobbyists to provide money to the campaign. Stephanie Kopelousos, a campaign aide and former director of legislative affairs for DeSantis, sent an email to state lobbyists asking them to attend a campaign fundraiser in late September.
“You have seen firsthand how hard the governor works to keep Floridians safe… our country needs his strong leadership to turn things around,” she wrote in the late September email obtained by NBC News had received.
There is a steep climb ahead of us
To get to the general election, DeSantis will have to figure out how to make big strides in a short period of time with limited money. In Iowa, his best state and the one he focuses almost exclusively on, he trailed Trump by 30 percentage points or more in a series of polls released last month.
DeSantis has not visited New Hampshire, the second state on the primary calendar, in more than a month, and his standing there has plummeted. By August, DeSantis was running a comfortable second place in the Granite State. But more recently He fluctuated between third and fifth place in polls.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, appears to be capitalizing on strong back-to-back debate performances in Milwaukee and Simi Valley, California, catapulting to second place in New Hampshire. A USA Today/Boston Globe/Suffolk poll released this week showed Trump at 49 percent in the state, Haley at 19 percent and DeSantis at 10 percent.
The Haley and DeSantis campaigns are scheduled to attend a donor conference in Dallas on Oct. 13, where they will sing dinner to the American Opportunity Alliance — a group of powerhouse GOP megadonors that includes billionaires Paul Singer and Harlan Crow.
A Haley spokeswoman declined to provide its fundraising numbers for the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30. Campaigns do not have to disclose their numbers to the Federal Election Commission until October 15th.
While money is a problem for DeSantis, it is also symptomatic of his difficulty connecting with voters on the campaign trail or through two televised primary debates. All non-Trump candidates have difficulty building this type of grassroots fundraising that drives many modern campaigns.
It has forced DeSantis and Never Back Down to make a major strategic shift.
Earlier this year, DeSantis and his allies downplayed the significance of the Iowa victory, boasted about spending up to $200 million on the super PAC and outlined a strategy to win the race by giving Trump a delegate for delegates in the later voting states. Now it’s important to win Iowa.
Focus on the first state
DeSantis supporters in the state said the governor remains competitive there.
Iowa State Henry Stone, the House Majority Leader, is one of them several dozen state legislators Those who have supported DeSantis expressed their confidence in the campaign on Wednesday. He said DeSantis has made progress toward completing a “Full Grassley” — visits to each of Iowa’s 99 counties, an achievement named after Chuck Grassley, the state’s senior U.S. senator.
“A prominent doctor here in Iowa reached out to me not long ago and said he was basically fed up with Trump; “I voted for him twice in the past and didn’t want to do it again,” Stone said.
Asked whether DeSantis’ cash on hand was sufficient entering the third quarter, Stone turned to headlines pushed by the campaign on Wednesday.
“I guess you and I may have heard two different numbers,” Stone said. “I heard that the campaign actually raised about $15 million in the third quarter. I forget where I read or heard that. So I think it will be more than possible to keep your shoes on the ground.”
The Trump camp, which has not yet released its fundraising numbers, sees DeSantis as weak.
“Rob DeSanctimonious’ campaign’s disastrous cash pile is a direct byproduct of a failed candidate with no message and no reason to run,” Trump co-campaign manager Chris LaCivita said, using an unflattering nickname the former president gave DeSantis. “Republican primary voters know that only one candidate can defeat Joe Biden – and that is Donald Trump.”
Other political activists say the money is enough to support DeSantis for now and that moving staff to Iowa makes sense.
David Kochel, a veteran of the Iowa campaigns who served as a top strategist for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid, said he was skeptical anyone would beat Trump in the state. But like a camper who needs to outrun his friend rather than an oncoming bear, Kochel said DeSantis can survive if he finishes ahead of his other rivals.
“He doesn’t have to beat Trump, he has to beat everyone else by far,” said Kochel, who doesn’t agree with any candidate. “If I’m him, I’m betting pretty heavily on it [Iowa]. I don’t know if there’s another way.”
Kochel noted that much of the DeSantis operation’s voter persuasion and turnout work “has already been turned over to the super PAC” and that campaign fundraising hasn’t dried up yet.
“As long as he can keep the staff on the ground and keep the plane flying back and forth from Tallahassee, I think he’ll be fine,” Kochel said. “Would you rather have more money? Naturally. But it won’t take them out of the race at this point.”