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2024 Election

Florida elections officials quietly made it easier for Ron DeSantis to fund his 2024 bid

State elections officials have removed years-old guidance against moving state political money to federal super PACs, clearing the way for a fund previously run by DeSantis to do just that.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at his election night event on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tampa in November.Octavio Jones / Getty Images file

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has quietly changed state guidelines, essentially giving its blessing for a state-level political committee he previously ran to move millions of dollars to a super PAC helping his presidential campaign.

For years, elections officials said such a transfer to federal super PACs would not be allowed. But in March — just months before DeSantis formally launched his bid for president — officials at the Florida State Department, the DeSantis administration entity that regulates state elections, changed its handbook to assert that such moves are allowed.

The timing is notable because a state-level political committee DeSantis led for the past five years, known as Friends of Ron DeSantis, is widely expected to transfer $80 million to a federal super PAC called Never Back Down that is supporting his just-launched bid for president.

Going back to at least the 2016 election cycle, the handbook made it clear that state election regulators did not think transferring money from state to federal committees was allowable. The issue was addressed in every election cycle in the handbook’s “frequently asked questions” section. 

“No,” read the past handbooks, in response to hypothetical questions about state-to-federal transfers. “A Florida political committee must use its funds solely for Florida political activities, i.e., depositing contributions and making expenditures, which by definition in Florida law, are for the purposes of influencing only Florida elections.”

For the next four versions of the handbook covering the 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022 election cycles, an identical answer was given. 

The 2022 version of the Florida Division of Elections Political Committee Handbook.
The 2022 version of the Florida Division of Elections Political Committee Handbook.Florida Dept. of State

In the 2024 version published in March, however, the answer changed. It now advises that such transfers are allowed, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, in which the court removed a ban on corporations’ and unions’ making independent expenditures. It paved the way for super PACs like Never Back Down, which is expected to spend upward of $200 million helping DeSantis try to win the White House.

“A Florida political committee may make contributions to an out-of-state political entity that engages solely in non-coordinated expenditures,” reads the updated answer, using a wonky election term for super PACs, which cannot directly coordinate with candidate campaigns they are helping.

The new answer specifically points to the Citizens United ruling in describing the department's previous advice as “no longer tenable regarding contributions to groups whose expenditures are not coordinated with candidates.”

It said that because of the 2010 ruling, the department is “updating its guidance.”

The 2023 version of the Florida Division of Elections Political Committee Handbook.
The 2024 version of the Florida Division of Elections Political Committee Handbook.Florida Dept. of State

A State Department official did not reply to a request seeking comment about why the agency is only now making the change 13 years after the Citizens United ruling. DeSantis' office also did not respond to a request for comment.

The agency is run by a DeSantis appointee and ally, former Republican state Rep. Cord Byrd, who had refused to say whether Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

“Citizens United was decided almost thirteen years ago and the Florida Legislature has amended the campaign finance statute at least five times since then,” a veteran Florida campaign finance attorney, who was granted anonymity to discuss the matter freely, said in a text message. “Up until 2 months ago, nobody seemed too concerned about how our state laws fit with that supreme court decision.

“But now, magically, here we are,” the person added, referring to DeSantis' presidential campaign.

The Federal Election Commission has not offered clarity on the issue, even as some have argued that such transfers are at odds with federal election law. In 2020, roughly $100,000 from a state-level political committee was transferred to a super PAC supporting the congressional campaign of Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla. An FEC complaint was filed, and the commission split on a 3-3 vote, essentially leaving the door open for others, like DeSantis’ political operation, to transfer state money into federal coffers in the future.

In early May, DeSantis distanced himself from Friends of Ron DeSantis, the state-level political committee, when Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a strong DeSantis ally, was made the group’s chairman.

Whether the group could transfer the more than $80 million in its bank account to the pro-DeSantis super PAC has been the subject of open speculation, the latest spurred by an FEC complaint filed Tuesday by the Campaign Legal Center.

The group alleges that even though he was not yet an officially declared candidate, DeSantis was legally running for president as far back as March based on media reports and on his travel both in early presidential primary states and abroad that spurred speculation he was beefing up his foreign affairs résumé.

“DeSantis engaged in an extended period of fundraising, as well as domestic and foreign travel, to build a presidential war chest and publicly present himself as a viable presidential candidate,” the complaint reads.

It alleges that the huge sums raised through the state-level committee, so-called soft money, were used to subsidize that early travel, which the group argues was in service of a presidential bid and at odds with federal election law. DeSantis formally declared for president last Wednesday.

“Soft money undermines federal campaign finance laws, because it is, by definition, money raised and spent outside the scope of those laws,” said Saurav Ghosh, the director of federal campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit watchdog group. “We are talking about funds from billionaires and corporate special interests who could exert massive influence over the candidate they are financing.”

Money has not yet been transferred from the state-level political committee DeSantis formerly led to the super PAC supporting his presidential bid, according to state election records. In its complaint, the Campaign Legal Center pointed to a New York Times story indicating that Never Back Down officials “expected” the transfer.

Never Back Down officials did not respond to a request seeking comment about the complaint.